After many delays negotiations in Harare between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have reached a critical point and the parties have reportedly agreed to new laws governing elections due next year. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA.
President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are considering a set of new election laws likely to be presented to parliament in the next few weeks.
Southern African diplomatic sources say the measures were agreed in South Africa-facilitated talks between the parties which have been under way since March.
Revising the electoral laws is seen as essential by government critics because last-minute changes introduced by Mr. Mugabe in the 2002 presidential election prevented thousands of people from voting. The changes included dramatic reductions in the number of polling stations in urban areas, considered opposition strongholds. The remaining polling centers were unable to cope with the number of voters.
Other amendments to laws governing the pre-election period reportedly are already at the government printer. These include reforms to allow all contesting political parties greater access to state media.
Sources say the new legislation, the first item on the negotiating agenda, could be presented to parliament within weeks, providing negotiations do not break down. A new interim constitution is also being considered.
The next three items on the negotiation agenda include reforms to legislation governing media, security and property laws.
The fifth item on the agenda is called political climate.
During elections since 2000 opposition supporters have been killed, kidnapped, beaten and arrested when they campaigned in traditional ZANU-PF strongholds in rural areas.
Observers say South Africa will have to play a decisive role to improve the political climate and ensure Zimbabweans experience freedom of political choice.
However, the simultaneous presidential, parliamentary and senate elections must be announced next month, ninety days ahead of polling day which is currently scheduled for March. President Mugabe's term also expires in March.
Observers say this leaves very little time to legislate and implement every thing agreed at the talks. They warn that South African mediators will likely have to persuade ZANU-PF to delay elections beyond March, so that the effects of new electoral freedoms can take hold.
Political observers say the final agreements reached by the parties are likely to include several major compromises which may not be acceptable to their supporters in both parties. This could also cause delays as party leaders lobby for support for the deals among the rank and file. But they say the negotiations present an opportunity for a new beginning.
African diplomats from the region who asked not to be named but are closely following the talks say they are encouraged by the progress aimed at ending Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.
President Mugabe, 83 years old and in power for nearly 28 years, is expected to be endorsed as the ZANU-PF presidential candidate during a party congress next month.