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Regional leaders: 'What Zimbabwe crisis?'

Leaders of the southern African region met in Zambia this weekend for an emergency summit on Zimbabwe's increasingly tense electoral impasse.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer, Joseph J. SchatzCorrespondent / April 14, 2008

Summit: Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa (l.) welcomed South African President Thabo Mbeki in Zambia on Saturday.

Themba Hadebe/AP

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; and Lusaka, Zambia

The possibility of a runoff vote increased last weekend, as Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced plans for a recount in 23 districts, enough to wipe out the opposition party's margin of victory in the March 29 election.

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In neighboring Zambia, an emergency meeting of regional heads of state urged calm in Zimbabwe and again called for the speedy release of results after two weeks of unexplained delay.

Yet while Zimbabwe has remained calm over the past two weeks, there are ominous signs of trouble ahead. Police and pro-government militias arrested journalists and attacked opposition activists, as the main opposition party – the Movement for Democratic Change – continued to insist that it had won the elections outright and would reject any calls for a runoff vote against President Robert Mugabe.

"Zimbabwe is sitting on a powder keg that can explode at any moment," says Gordon Moyo, director of Bulawayo Agenda, a coalition of civil society groups in Zimbabwe's second largest city. Speaking of the statement by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Zambia, he adds, "Their statement says that all the parties should accept the results, when already the ruling ZANU-PF party is recounting the results, opening boxes, tainting the results. We are told that we should accept the results without qualification, when the results that come up will be cooked results."

Two weeks after an election that was intended to settle, once and for all, who should govern Zimbabwe, the country remains mired in an impasse.

Opposition leaders warn of a popular backlash, if Mr. Mugabe is seen to be changing election results that they say gave the opposition a clear majority to rule. Ruling party activists talk privately of digging in and warn of a major crackdown on dissent. And opposition hopes that regional leaders would pressure Mugabe to step down after 28 years in power faded as Zimbabwe's neighbors decided Sunday to continue to endorse "quiet diplomacy," led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, a longtime opponent of taking strong action against Mugabe.

The coming days will gauge whether Zimbabwe heads toward crisis or compromise.

"I think that what SADC has done is conveniently refuse to pressure the Mugabe government to abide by its own principles," says Ozias Tungawara, director of the Africa studies program at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"The way forward now is that SADC must put pressure on ZANU-PF to conduct polls, if there is a runoff, in a transparent manner. And if there are recounts, they must be done with an outside presence of electoral observers," Mr. Tungawara adds.

'No crisis' in Zimbabwe?

The emergency summit in Zambia showed little willingness by regional leaders to intervene strongly in the Zimbabwe impasse, but it showed what may be growing divisions over Mugabe's tactics among regional leaders.

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