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.
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.
Mr. Mbeki stopped in Harare on his way to the summit, met with Mugabe, and said there was "no crisis in Zimbabwe," a statement that seemed to take the wind out of the summit's sails before it had even begun. Mbeki's camp has questioned the very need for the emergency summit called by Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, an aide to the South African president told the Monitor on Sunday.
Mbeki's preferred approach of "quiet diplomacy" on Zimbabwe has been criticized heavily by the MDC and outside observers. At the summit's opening, Mr. Mwanawasa – who once called Zimbabwe a "sinking Titanic" – took a harder line.
With Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai sitting in the front row of the gathered assembly, Mwanawasa said there "appears to be an electoral impasse in Zimbabwe," and called on both sides to put the national interest first.
He noted that the summit was "not intended to put [Mugabe] in the dock."
Western diplomats hoped the fact that Mwanawasa called the summit at all was a sign that the traditional regional deference to Mugabe was breaking down. Carmen Martinez, US ambassador to Zambia, called Mwanawasa's speech a "strong statement that we have a problem here," adding that the US government was hoping for small steps, starting with the release of the election results.
Mwanawasa, Mbeki, and six other heads of state wrangled deep into the night over the wording of a communiqué on the Zimbabwean situation, talking with Mr. Tsvangirai and consulting with independent candidate Simba Makoni by phone.
They emerged with a gently worded statement urging that verification and release of results be done "expeditiously and in accordance with the due process of law," and urging Zimbabwe to ensure that a possible run-off is "held in a secure environment."
The divide between Mbeki's words and Mwanawasa's words underscored what could be a growing generational divide among the region's leaders.
Countries like South Africa, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the "old guard," according to one Zambian government minister – have been more reluctant to meddle in Mugabe's business. But Zambia, as well as nations like Tanzania and Botswana – all of whom have younger leaders with fewer ties to liberation-era leaders like Mugabe – have been more willing to advocate intervention.
"The very fact they had the guts to actually hold this extraordinary summit acknowledges that things are not right in Zimbabwe," MDC secretary general Tendai Biti told reporters.
In Harare, ordinary Zimbabweans are calling on the MDC and ZANU-PF to enter into serious talks to address the political stalemate. They also appealed to the international community to help facilitate dialogue that would break the political impasse.
"They should sit down together and agree on a government of national unity because the current political stalemate would further destroy the political, social, and economic fabric of the nation," says Pride Gwavava, a school teacher in Harare.
But MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said the opposition party would continue to appeal to the international community to put pressure on Mugabe to release the results. He said it would be "unfortunate" if Mugabe disregards SADC's call to release the election results.
Mr. Chamisa said the party would not agree to a recount of the 23 districts as ordered by the ZEC. "How do we know that the ballot boxes were not stuffed by ZANU-PF since they are in custody of ZEC working closely with ZANU-PF? We are not going to agree to that nonsense."
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.