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Mwanawasa Explains SADC Support for Halt in Zimbabwe Vote

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has followed the lead of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in calling for a postponement of this Friday’s presidential election run-off. In Lusaka over the weekend, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, the SADC chairperson, called a press conference to explain the reasons for SADC’s new position. He said he hoped the delay would allow for conditions to become more suitable for a free and fair vote in accordance with Zimbabwean law, SADC principles, and the charter and conventions of the African Union. The Zambian President also noted that he would have failed in his role as SADC chairman not to have urged authorities in Harare that conditions were not yet ripe for a follow-up to Zimbabwe’s disputed March 29 presidential vote. Journalist Sanday Chongo Kabange of Lusaka’s Radio Phoenix attended President Mwanawasa’s press briefing. He tells VOA English to Africa reporter Howard Lesser SADC’s decision was not disclosed until after opposition MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai announced that the MDC was pulling out of the race.

“Mr. Mwanawasa spoke about three or four hours after Mr. Tsvangirai had decided to pull out of the election. He also tried to act immediately after what had transpired in Zimbabwe,” said Kabange.

Last week, SADC’s designated mediator for Zimbabwe, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, achieved an apparent breakthrough in the crisis by arranging for one-thousand SADC observers to travel to Zimbabwe from outside the country to serve as election monitors and discourage further outbreaks of partisan violence and ensure a fair vote. The MDC opted out of the race after a ruling party militia blocked the site of a large campaign rally the opposition had planned to hold on Sunday. SADC observers already in the country stayed away from the rally venue, while journalists attempting to cover the gathering were reportedly shot at. As mediators awaited official word on whether or not Harare would unilaterally proceed with the run-off, President Mwanawasa announced SADC’s about-face. Radio Phoenix reporter Kabange says MDC consultations, as well as the continuing violence, played a part in SADC’s decision.

“The MDC, about three or four days ago, they sent a six-man team to the Zambian chancery in Pretoria to petition Mr. Mwanawasa, the SADC chairperson, to assist and end to the violence in Zimbabwe. And the other thing that we are told is on Sunday, the MDC was supposed to hold a rally at the stadium in Zimbabwe. But before the MDC would hold the rally, the venue that was supposed to hold the rally was actually filled with armed war veterans. And I also think they would not have been allowed free access to state media. So this is probably why the SADC had to make an immediate response to what the MDC had said,” he noted.

Although President Mbeki spent a good part of last week in talks with Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai in Harare, reporter Kabange says there is little evidence that he consulted with President Mwanawasa before the SADC support for a pull-out was announced.

“Mr. Mwanawasa tried to contact Mr. Mbeki, I think, on Friday, on two occasions. I was told he called Mr. Mbeki twice. He was told he was in a meeting and that he would get back to him, but he never did. Then, he said that he has not been getting briefs from Mr. Mbeki on Zimbabwe and all he is doing is relying on intelligence reports on Zimbabwe that he is getting from the Zambian chancery and other intelligence reports. He has actually not been getting feeds from Mr. Mbeki as mediator on SADC. One thing he said was, ‘I’m disappointed as chairperson of SADC because I’m being denied information’,” he said.

The Radio Phoenix reporter said that given the escalating incidents of violence, and the seemingly premeditated arrests of leading MDC officials (including Morgan Tsvangirai, who Kabange says has been jailed five times in the past 10 days), SADC’s call for a postponement was understandable. He said the southern regional bloc is hoping to avoid further embarrassment by getting government authorities in Zimbabwe to permit open campaigning and free media access to election coverage in order to create suitable conditions for a run-off eventually to take place. Zimbabwe government officials are quoted as saying there is nothing in the constitution to prevent a run-off from continuing if one of the parties opts to drop out of the race.