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Zimbabwe Political Negotiations Reach Critical Point


Negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF and Zimbabwe's opposition are almost complete, but the timeframe for implementation could become a make-or-break issue. For VOA, Peta Thornycroft has more.

Negotiations on democracy issues to pave the way for elections in Zimbabwe are almost complete. All the legal work has been done and a new constitution has been agreed on by the negotiators and technical committees for the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The major outstanding issue is the timeframe in which these agreements will be implemented. An African diplomat based in South Africa has told VOA this is the reason the parties have not yet concluded the negotiations.

The diplomat fears that a failure to agree on timeframes could ultimately wreck eight months of talks. He suggests this is unlikely to occur until the conclusion of the national conference of South Africa's ruling African National Congress next week.

President Robert Mugabe has agreed to significant reforms of the election laws, but has so far given no indication he will allow time for those reforms to take effect before the next poll.

Analysts say the reforms will need to be well-publicized to a skeptical, nervous and politically exhausted electorate in Zimbabwe in order to ensure Zimbabweans vote in numbers.

Diplomats in Harare and several political analysts warn that senior leaders of both opposition factions will likely boycott the poll if Mr. Mugabe insists on elections in March and also delays implementation of new constitution. Analysts say an opposition boycott would receive strong support from non-governmental organizations and civil rights activists.

That, analysts say, would deny President Mugabe the free and fair election verdict he needs in order to return Zimbabwe to the international community and raise foreign loans to rescue the economy.

A boycott would also deny South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the Zimbabwe negotiations, the goal he has said he wants - a Zimbabwe-election result that is undisputed.

It all depends on the timing. So they are very close to success and also dangerously close to failure at the same time, the African diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the government is proceeding as if no electoral reforms had been agreed to in the talks. New electoral commissioners are being appointed and Mr. Mugabe has said he will only invite election observers from friendly nations.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders initiated the negotiations at an extraordinary summit in March, after being shocked by television images of injuries sustained by founding MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai and colleagues while in police custody earlier that month.