Page last updated at 19:31 GMT, Sunday, 22 June 2008 20:31 UK

Fresh dilemmas over Zimbabwe

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Johannesburg

When Morgan Tsvangirai first decided to contest the run-off election several months ago, he made a calculated gamble.

Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai has been forced to admit the failure of his strategy
He judged that his support across the country was so great that as long as there was a high enough turnout, they could swamp any attempt by the ruling party, Zanu-PF, to rig the poll.

He also bet that the region's election watchdogs and diplomatic pressure would keep Zanu relatively honest, and make sure it ran what would, at least superficially, be a reasonably balanced election.

With less than a week to go before the poll, Morgan Tsvangirai has admitted that he was wrong.

In his statement, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change cited seven reasons for choosing to bow out:

  • State sponsored violence: According to the MDC, international human rights groups and, increasingly, regional election monitors, Zanu-PF party thugs have waged a campaign of intimidation and violence. They have not only used party supporters, but state security institutions like the police and the military.
  • Inability to campaign: A Western diplomat described Morgan Tsvangirai as a "prisoner of Harare". The city is ringed by official and unofficial roadblocks which effectively stopped the MDC's leader from reaching his supporters. Police had detained him at least five times, MDC rallies had been banned and in a final blow, armed members of the Zanu-PF youth brigade occupied a stadium in Harare where the party had hoped to hold a major rally.
  • Decimation of MDC structures: The party said more than 80 of its members had been murdered over recent months. Hundreds more were in hiding, making it impossible for the party to organise.
  • No confidence in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission: In its statement, the party said it was shocked by the ZEC's level of partisanship, and accused the commission of being staffed by Zanu-PF militia.
  • No access to the media: Independent media have been attacked or banned from reporting in Zimbabwe. State media either ignores the MDC, or portrays its members as violent stooges of the west. It has refused to carry MDC campaign ads.
  • Defiance by Mugabe: In recent speeches, President Mugabe has repeatedly said he would refuse to give up the gains of the liberation war because of an 'x' on a ballot paper. He also said "only God can remove me".
  • Planned Election Rigging: The MDC listed what it described as an elaborate and decisive plan by Zanu to rig the elections.
  • In a news conference to announce his decision, Morgan Tsvangirai said: "We can't ask the people to cast their vote… when that vote will cost their lives."

    "This violent retributive agenda has seen over 200,000 people internally displaced and over 86 MDC supporters killed. Over 20,000 homes have been destroyed and over 10,000 people have been injured and maimed in this orgy of violence."

    Given such an exhaustive catalogue, it is hardly surprising that Morgan Tsvangirai saw no point in continuing with the campaign.

    Zimbabwean police
    The MDC says Zimbabwean police and military have led the intimidation

    But he has also made it harder for the region to offer the kind of diplomatic support that the MDC had hoped to win sooner.

    According to Zimbabwe's Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, the election will still go ahead.

    He said it was now too late to stop the process, and the Zimbabwean people should not be denied the right to vote.

    So, it now seems inevitable that President Mugabe will be duly declared the victor and inaugurated in line with Zimbabwe's constitution.

    The process will effectively confer legal and constitutional legitimacy on President Mugabe. That gives him a powerful argument for regional and international recognition of his administration.

    Resolve stiffening

    If the MDC had gone through with the poll, election observers had already indicated they were unlikely to declare it free and fair.

    With an unequivocally negative verdict, regional governments would have had grounds for withholding that recognition, and forcing President Mugabe to negotiate not as a president, but as the leader of the minority party. (In the parliamentary election held at the same time as the first round of the presidential vote, Zanu-PF won 97 seats, to the MDC's 110.)

    However, there are already signs that the region may refuse to accept a Mugabe presidency.

    Levy Mwanawasa, the Zambian president and current chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), told a news conference that it was "scandalous for SADC to remain silent on Zimbabwe".

    "It will be bad if the majority of [SADC] leaders don't agree with me," he said. "What is happening in Zimbabwe is embarrassing to all of us."

    He went on to argue that the elections should be postponed until further notice.

    "I urge the authorities in Zimbabwe to implement this postponement to allow for the establishment of conditions that are suitable for the holding of genuinely free and fair elections, in accordance with Zimbabwean laws."

    Few levers

    There are signs that SADC - the one organisation that Robert Mugabe still seems to respond to - will indeed agree with President Mwanawasa.

    Even before Sunday's announcement, other regional leaders including, significantly, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, also called on President Mugabe to "stop the violence and intimidation".

    Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa
    It remains to be seen whether Mr Mwanawasa can galvanise SADC

    President dos Santos is one of the Zimbabwean leader's staunchest allies, and such a public rebuke is likely to sting.

    But apart from withholding recognition, it is hard to see what levers the region, or any foreign powers, can pull.

    Sanctions would only hurt the poor, who are already suffering under the weight of the economic crisis - and anyway they offer only long-term pressure.

    Direct military intervention is not a realistic prospect, and nor is a blockade.

    So, it comes back to negotiations. The government has shown no serious appetite for compromise, and the MDC has agreed to talks more because it needs to appear willing to compromise, than because it really wants to join hands with Zanu-PF.

    But the most powerful incentive for talks is the economic crisis.

    Even the most hardened Zanu minister would recognise that the country cannot continue on its current path, and that the only way out of inflation reckoned to be around 2,000,000% is some kind of political compromise. But that still looks a long way off.

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