Zimbabwe expected to dominate African meeting

The Baltimore Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Hopes for a way forward in Zimbabwe's disputed elections hang on a weekend meeting of the regional Southern African Development Community, after negotiations this week between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition failed to seal a deal.

Despite upbeat talk from Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe and the mediator of the talks, South African President Thabo Mbeki, little progress was made on the key issue: the division of power between Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The Zimbabwe crisis is expected to take up much of the discussion when southern African heads of government begin their meeting tomorrow.

In a sign of increasing disquiet in the group over Zimbabwe's political dispute, Botswana has threatened to boycott the meeting if Mugabe attends as Zimbabwe's president.

During this week's talks in Zimbabwe, negotiators for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change agreed that Mugabe should remain president and retain control of the army, according to opposition sources. But the opposition insisted that his powers be curtailed, with Tsvangirai appointing Cabinet appointments and leading the government.

Mugabe wants to appoint the Cabinet and retain government control.

The differences between the two sides relate to Zimbabwe's two recent elections: The opposition says any deal must be based on the March 29 election, seen as relatively free and fair by African and local observers. In that balloting, the ruling party lost control of the parliament and Mugabe won fewer votes for president than Tsvangirai, although the election commission found that neither candidate received enough votes to avoid a runoff.

The ruling party bases its claim that Mugabe is the legitimate leader on the June 29 runoff, widely criticized as undemocratic by the West and by three teams of African observers. Mugabe ran as the sole candidate after Tsvangirai withdrew amid intensifying violence against his supporters.

Tsvangirai and other MDC officials, including strategist Tendai Biti, were detained briefly yesterday and had their passports confiscated at the airport in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, as they were due to fly to South Africa. The opposition leader had been invited to Johannesburg to address southern African heads of government this evening at the SADC gathering. Tsvangirai and Biti's passports were later returned. Tsvangirai is expected to fly early today.

George Charamba, Mugabe's press secretary, disputed the opposition's version of events, saying that Tsvangirai's travel documents were invalid and that Biti's passport had not been confiscated. He accused the opposition leader of knowingly going to the airport with invalid documents to provoke authorities "to secure one or two sound bites."

"We are not going to waive the rules for a politician who is merely forgetful," he said.

The incident followed strong criticism of Tsvangirai in the Herald, a pro-government newspaper, for failing to accept Mugabe's terms in the talks. After the passport seizure, Tsvangirai's party released a statement accusing Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, of not negotiating in good faith.

"ZANU-PF's latest antics show that the regime is not sincere on the dialogue process. The detention is an affront to SADC, to the [African Union] and to the broader international community who are working hard to peacefully resolve Zimbabwe's crisis," read the statement from Tsvangirai's MDC. "Mugabe continues to preach dialogue and to act war."

The failure of the talks leaves Mugabe coping with raging hyperinflation and a severe currency crisis, with money so short that Western Union pays out in gas coupons instead of cash.

The country has no hope of a Western rescue package, re-engagement with international financial institutions or credibility among foreign investors without a deal that includes Tsvangirai.

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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