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Brinkmanship Over Zimbabwe Constitutional Talks

Brinkmanship Over Zimbabwe Constitutional Talks

Zimbabwe's main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is threatening to pull out of talks with the ruling ZANU-PF party over its refusal to give way on key demands for political reform.

Leading members of the main faction of a divided MDC are meeting this week in South Africa to discuss a possible boycott of elections next March if laws limiting freedom of assembly and the independent media remain on the statute books, MDC treasurer Roy Bennett told IRIN.

The MDC had agreed to talks at the urging of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, on the understanding that both sides would make concessions, Bennett said.

But while the MDC had ignored the protests of its supporters and in September backed a Constitutional Amendment No. 18 Bill, allowing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to virtually handpick his successor, there was no reciprocation on the MDC's demands for a halt to political violence and the repeal of legislation widely seen an undemocratic.

"We have to be able to convince the people of Zimbabwe that there is merit for them to participate [in the 2008 elections]," said Bennett. "Because of the lack of a level playing field and continued violence on the ground, in the current climate it will be difficult to convince them to vote, and that their vote will count for something."

Bennett said South African President Thabo Mbeki's visit to Zimbabwe last week to discuss progress in the talks with all sides was "posturing" ahead of the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in December.

However, political analyst and director of the Mass Public Opinion Institute, Eldred Masunungure, described as "brinkmanship" any threatened boycott of the 2008 election, as both sides had too much to lose if the talks failed.

"[The MDC] entered the dialogue process knowing the decks were stacked against them but, in my view, if they withdraw [from the talks] they will be the bigger losers; they will not be able to garner any sympathy from SADC or the AU [African Union]."

ZANU-PF "also desperately needs some kind of agreement that could result in the lifting of what it terms 'Western sanctions'; ZANU-PF is as desperate as perhaps the MDC to get something out of the negotiating process," Masunungure commented.

Although the ruling party could countenance some concessions, such as those contained in a newly gazetted electoral reform bill that liberalises media coverage during the campaign period, "it will not concede anything that erodes the pillars of its power".

The Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN), a rights group, said it was still studying a proposed electoral reform bill, introduced earlier this month without any input from the MDC. But amendments to the current law, which limit independent political oversight of the voting process, were only part of the solution.

"It's not a complete package until laws that affect the political environment, allow fair campaigning and a free media are addressed," ZESN national director Rindai Chipfunde-Vava told IRIN.

Zimbabwe's economy stumbled in the late 1990s, but slipped into crisis in 2000 with the emergence of the MDC as the first significant challenge to ZANU-PF's hold on power. A violent election campaign and a chaotic land reform programme divided the country, slashed foreign earnings, and froze foreign investment, while the government accused the West of pursuing a regime-change agenda.



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