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Last-ditch effort to move Zimbabwe talks forward

As dispute persists in wake of presidential election, the country seems poised between negotiated settlement and outright civil war.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 2008


With last-ditch efforts to get talks started, Zimbabwe this week seems perched at possible turning point, with a peaceful negotiated settlement on one side, and outright civil war on the other.

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Starting Thursday, the South African government initiated a new round of talks between the ruling party of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the representatives of the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. Yet Mr. Tsvangirai issued a statement Friday insisting that he sent a team not to open negotiations, but to set conditions for any future talks, including the condition of ending state-sponsored violence against the opposition.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change claims that more than 90 of its supporters have been killed since Tsvangirai won a first round of presidential elections in March 29. Tsvangirai's victory fell short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.

"We in the MDC are committed to finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Zimbabwean crisis and we will take every opportunity to clarify our position and to allow the voice of the Zimbabwean people to be heard," Tsvangirai said in a statement. "I and my party have stated categorically that there are no negotiations between ourselves and [the ruling party] ZANU-PF currently taking place. In addition, we have stated that no such negotiations can take place while the ZANU-PF regime continues to wage war on my party and the people of Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's continued political crisis – with two parties claiming victory in the presidential race – looks strangely reminiscent of the Kenyan political crisis. Yet unlike Kenya, where international and domestic pressure forced the two sides to talk, Zimbabwe's crisis shows no sign of ending soon. President Mugabe insists that talks can begin only if the opposition accepts him as the country's president. Tsvangirai insists that the two parties must meet as equals, and only after Mugabe ends the campaign of violence. South African President Thabo Mbeki, the designated mediator but nearly rejected by the opposition, has his work cut out for him.

"I'm not saying that it is out of the question that MDC would go into a powersharing agreement, but this is not going to be the route to a democratic Zimbabwe," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "If a national unity government is going to have purchase, it will be where two sides worked out an agreement as equals."