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Zimbabwe Parliament Debates Leaving Commonwealth - 2003-12-10

Zimbabwe's parliament is meeting Wednesday to debate the country's withdrawal from the Commonwealth, which was agreed by the cabinet Tuesday. Zimbabwe's imminent departure from the Commonwealth could have a big impact on the country's foreign relations.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said it would oppose Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth when parliament debates the question.

However the MDC is outnumbered in parliament and lawmakers from the ruling Zanu-PF party are expected to approve the withdrawal.

As the debate unfolded, there was intense speculation in Harare's diplomatic community about the implications of Zimbabwe leaving the Commonwealth, which is made up primarily of former British colonies.

Diplomats from Commonwealth countries, among them Australia, Canada and Nigeria say they are not sure what the next step will be. There are no recent precedents. The last time a country quit the Commonwealth was South Africa in 1961, because of criticism of its apartheid policies.

Western diplomats say they presume that the British High Commissioner will become an ambassador, as will the top diplomats of other Commonwealth countries.

That raises the question of whether a high commissioner who becomes an ambassador will have to present new diplomatic credentials to President Robert Mugabe, and whether he will accept them from countries he blames for Zimbabwe's crisis, in particular Britain and Australia.

The state-controlled Herald newspaper on Tuesday suggested in a rare front-page editorial, that Zimbabwe should go ahead and break diplomatic relations with Britain.

Such a move could have major economic consequences. Britain provides nearly $200 million a year in humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe has an annual trade surplus with Britain of about $100 million.