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Tough call for Zimbabwe opposition

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Johannesburg

Morgan Tsvangirai supporter
The MDC has to decide whether to put supporters through another campaign
At last, almost five weeks after Zimbabweans went to the polls to choose their next president, there is a result.

It was an outcome the opposition and international observers had both widely anticipated and feared in equal measure.

The figures, which give the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai 47.9%, ahead of President Robert Mugabe's 42.3%, mean that under the law there must now be a run-off.

That leaves Mr Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) with a tough choice: whether or not to take part.

Since polling day on 29 March, the party has flipped and flopped on the question. They have consistently claimed an outright victory with 50.3% of the vote - hardly a resounding endorsement, but technically enough to avoid a second round.

At times they have said there is no need for a run-off and therefore they will not participate; at other times they have said that they will, but only under certain conditions.

Pros and cons

At a news conference hours after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced its results, the MDC's Secretary General Tendai Biti kept the question open: "We are fully aware of all the pros and cons," he said.

Robert Mugabe supporters
Human rights groups have accused Zanu-PF supporters of violence

"The national council will meet this weekend to discuss it and there will be an announcement by our president."

So, what are the pros and cons?

A boycott would certainly be a relief to the MDC's supporters and activists on the ground, who have been the targets of what the party alleges is a state-organised campaign of violence and intimidation.

And Mr Tsvangirai has also said he is reluctant to put the country through the kind of violence that looks certain to go with a second round.

But if the MDC decides on a boycott, President Mugabe would be declared the victor by default. There would probably be a round of international condemnation, but President Mugabe would be inaugurated in line with the constitution, claiming a degree of legitimacy.

Under that scenario, Zimbabwe looks likely to settle into an extended period of political instability, with Mr Mugabe trying to run a government with an opposition-controlled parliament. (The opposition won 109 seats, to Zanu-PF's 97.)

If the MDC does decide to contest the run off, there is every chance that the campaign would be characterised by still more violence and polarisation; and the party is convinced that Zanu-PF would resort to a combination of intimidation and ballot stuffing to win the vote.

Campaign violence

There is also no guarantee that the election would take place within the 21 days set down in law.

election results

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is still to set the date of the run-off, and it has the power to extend the campaign period.

Political observers say it could be pushed back to within about 40 days. And in the past President Mugabe's advisers have said if conditions are not conducive to a free and fair campaign, he could set aside the second round for up to a year.

That remains a very real prospect. On Friday, an observer mission from the Southern African Development Community condemned the recent rise in violence, torture and killings.

According to the head of the mission, Jose Marcos Barrica, they noted a "relatively tense environment characterised by inflammatory utterances" from ruling party and opposition leaders.

"The increase of violence, torture, pillage, destruction of goods and killings of people proved the existence of a climate of political intolerance in the country, whose responsibility can be given to political leaders who took part in the elections," he told reporters in Harare.

Healing coalition?

The relatively equivocal statement differs from most human rights groups who have blamed Zanu-PF party thugs for the vast majority of the violence. But it may be enough for President Mugabe to set aside the run-off vote until things settle down.

That may give the opposition space to consider its third option: what it has called a "government of national healing".

At Friday's news conference, the MDC's Secretary General Tendai Biti said they were still prepared to consider working with elements of Zanu-PF to form a government headed by Mr Tsvangirai, as long as President Mugabe retires from political life.

It is an appealing option to those hoping for a quick and peaceful end to the impasse, but the ruling party has publicly scoffed at the idea and, so far at least, President Mugabe shows no sign of quitting without a fight.

So, can Mr Tsvangirai win a run off? Most observers believe he can. The third candidate - President Mugabe's former finance minister Simba Makoni took almost 9% of the vote. Sources inside his camp say he cannot return to the ruling party's fold, so he is almost certain to throw his support behind the opposition leader.

Mr Tsvangirai does not need too many more votes to win outright.

Of course, that assumes there is no outright cheating. And under the current circumstances, most observers believe that is a very big "if".




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