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Zimbabwe's Political Party Negotiators Meet in Advance of Deadline

Negotiators for Zimbabwe's three political parties are meeting to agree on timelines for the full implementation of the agreement that brought about the unity government. Other political reforms may also be considered. President Jacob Zuma last week told party leaders to produce the timelines by March 31.

Sources close to South African President Jacob Zuma's talks in Harare last week say he told the leaders they had to agree a series of timetables to implement the so-called Global Political Agreement of September 2008 and other reforms by his deadline. The goal is for the reforms to lead to free and fair elections.

With warnings that Zimbabwe's banks are increasingly fragile, and political talks bogged down, the deadline is being seen as critical.

Some business owners have told VOA of a dramatic slump in domestic demand and job losses in the formal sector and say these declines can be directly attributed to the political paralysis in the government.

In addition, the International Monetary Fund warns that the country's commercial banking sector is dangerously shaky. These problems, as well as others, puts new pressure on the country's leaders to move quickly on political reform.

Mr. Zuma met last week in Harare with President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.

There are other issues on the table, including the selection of a new attorney general, and the repeal of laws that give police enormous powers to arrest people for holding meetings. In addition, there is the question of the appointment of MDC provincial governors. Mr. Mugabe appointed only governors from his ZANU-PF party, even though Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won a narrow parliamentary victory in the 2008 elections.

The reform timetable, sources say, must include legislation for setting up the Human Rights Commission. Mr. Mugabe has approved its members, but there are no laws for it to begin work. Human rights organizations report ongoing selective arrests and prosecution of scores of MDC supporters.

Also, the negotiators are expected to discuss the recently appointed independent electoral commission. Despite the new commission, Mr. Mugabe has handed power over the elections to his close political ally, ZANU-PF Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa.

If the negotiators can set a timetable, the Southern African Development Community will then try to bind the unity government partners to deliver on it.

But, the unity government already is far behind on the goal of holding a referendum on a new constitution and on elections next year - a target spelled out in the September 2008 agreement.

Western governments have withheld aid for rebuilding Zimbabwe's collapsing infrastructure, until progress is made on the reforms.

In addition, the European Union and United States will not lift travel and financial restrictions against ZANU-PF leaders until substantial reforms are in effect.