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South Africa's President Says Zimbabwe Elections Must Be 'Free And Fair'

South African President Thabo Mbeki says there will only be economic recovery in Zimbabwe under a government viewed as legitimate by all Zimbabweans and that elections next year must be free and fair. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA that negotiations between the ruling Zanu PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are focused on hammering out a new constitution.

Thabo Mbeki has taken on the role of facilitating talks between the ruling ZANU PF party and the opposition MDC, and he says the results of the next national elections due in March should be undisputed.

Zimbabwe is in its worst ever economic crisis ever with staple foods in short supply.

Mr. Mbeki says Zimbabwe's economic recovery is a "major challenge" and "would have to be led by a government whose legitimacy is not contested."

Zimbabwe's election results since 2000 have been disputed by the MDC. The opposition has regularly seen its candidates, election workers and polling agents imprisoned and beaten.

Most of its legislators have been arrested since it nearly defeated Zanu PF in the 2000 general election.

At present, voter registration is ongoing and is controlled by the government. There are persistent accusations by opposition legislators in different parts of Zimbabwe that the voter registration is illegally slanted in Zanu PF's favor in both rural and urban areas.

After founding president of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai and scores of colleagues were beaten in police detention in March, the Southern African Development Community mandated Mr. Mbeki to facilitate talks between the two parties.

So far the talks focused on identifying points of agreement and disagreement on a draft constitution which was first negotiated in secret between the MDC and Zanu PF in 2004.

The MDC split into two factions two years ago and unity talks between the two opposition groups broke down in May.

Arthur Mutambara, leader of other MDC group, last week issued a statement after a meeting of his national council saying that Zimbabwe's future could not be left to foreigners alone. He called on people to intensify a campaign of defiance against the Zanu PF government.

He also said unity agreements, facilitated by independent negotiators in South Africa, had not been implemented by the Tsvangirai faction. He said, as a result, his group would be forced to field its own candidates in the elections, effectively splitting the opposition vote.

He said in view of the strategic value of a united front against President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF, his national council believed Zimbabweans deserved better leadership than that displayed so far by Tsvangirai. He said his group would "only participate in a process that gives life to the united front inspired by single candidate philosophy where there is mutual respect and trust for all parties."

Morgan Tsvangirai said in Harare Monday that he would not be involved in what he described as an "elitist party." He said he was consulting his supporters countrywide to test their opinions on future plans. He said Mutambara had "jumped ship."

With only four months left before campaigning begins, analysts say there is little time for the two MDC factions to unify and realistically challenge Zanu PF, or for Mbeki to achieve a new constitution leading to free and fair elections.