For the first time in more than four months, officials from Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition will meet Tuesday to see whether a process of formal negotiations can begin. The meeting follows a visit to Zimbabwe last week by South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The meeting between senior officials of the two parties is scheduled for Tuesday in Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo. Zanu-PF will be represented by Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change will be represented by its secretary-general, Welshman Ncube.

The two officials are expected to discuss whether the time is right, particularly from Zanu-PF's point of view, for formal talks to begin aimed at finding a way out of Zimbabwe's political crisis.

South African President Thabo Mbeki extracted a commitment from Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe last week that he would ensure that contacts between the two parties would begin before the end of the year.

One round of talks between the two parties ended last year, shortly after they had agreed on an agenda.

Mr. Chinamasa and Mr. Ncube met over a period of a few weeks this year to discuss aspects of a new constitution, but they reached no agreement.

Opposition spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi says that while the group has always been willing to negotiate, it had to continue with its own programs to push for democratic reforms, including a series of protests and strikes.

Political analysts believe that Zanu PF will want certain conditions before a formal dialogue can happen and that this will form part of Tuesday's discussions between the party's representatives.

The flicker of optimism on the political front appears during a deepening economic crisis and continuing repression by Mr. Mugabe's government. During the weekend, police prevented Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, from resuming publication, despite of a court order. Police and a government agency shut the newspaper down in September for not being licensed.