Could unity government talks eclipse Zimbabwe runoff vote?

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was invited for talks with President Robert Mugabe, says a top official. Would the talks negate a runoff presidential election scheduled for June 27.

Under threat? Morgan Tsvangirai lambasted Mugabe on the fringes of a conference in Northern Ireland on Friday.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai canceled a trip home from South Africa this weekend, citing a rumored assassination plot against him.

The trip was timed for a celebration of his party's gaining a parliamentary majority in the March 29 elections and to gear up for the newly announced June 27 presidential runoff vote.

But a senior member of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party tells the Monitor that he had met with Mr. Tsvangirai over the weekend in Johannesburg, and that Tsvangirai had indicated that he had been invited back to Harare to begin power-sharing talks with Mr. Mugabe himself.

These would be the highest-level talks yet, and could pave the way for a political settlement that would avoid a runoff that most observers say will not be free and fair.

"[Tsvangirai] said he had been approached by the ZANU-PF and they were prepared to forgo a runoff in favor of establishing a government of national unity," says Dumiso Dabengwa, a former Zimbabwe chief of intelligence and current member of ZANU-PF's politburo, and one of the leading ZANU-PF officials to turn against Mugabe in support of independent candidate Simba Makoni.

"I said: 'Please don't hesitate. Take it up, and let's get on with the negotiation,' " says Mr. Dabengwa. But hearing minutes later on the news that Tsvangirai had canceled his trip in fear of his life, Dabengwa could only shake his head. "What we want is Mugabe out," he says, "but we have this impossible character [Tsvangirai], and we have to swallow this bitter pill to support this fellow. If he doesn't go back now, he will lose face."

Glimmers of hope

By most appearances, Zimbabwe's post-election crisis would seem no closer to resolution. Attacks against opposition activists by pro-Mugabe militias continue, and leaders of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) insist that they won the presidential vote outright. But behind the uncompromising positions, there are glimmers of hope that the two parties are quietly negotiating.

"Now there is a real possibility of a government of national unity," says Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe.

ZANU-PF insiders say that Mugabe's support continues to erode, and that aside from a small coterie of Mugabe's advisers – and of course the roving bands of pro-Mugabe militias – there are few voices in ZANU-PF who think that violence will do any more good.

"I think they've always wanted a negotiated settlement, and the general tendency by the MDC and other democratic forces was to give an exit package for Mugabe which would give him immunity, but it would not give safeguards for anyone else," says Dumiso Matshazi, an opposition activist from Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo. "What [top Mugabe backers] feared is if Mugabe gives in without giving safeguards for them. The rest of the guys around Mugabe felt vulnerable; they held Mugabe at ransom. They say, 'We've done everything for you. So if there is no package for us, then there is no package.' "

MDC officials continue to publicly deny any talks of a negotiated settlement.

"That is a very remote possibility, because ZANU-PF is murdering our supporters," MDC spokesman Nelson Camisa told the Monitor. "The environment is not at all conducive for any talks and we are not talking. The runoff is not going to be free and fair, but despite that it is going to be a walkover on Mugabe."

Tough to hold a fair runoff vote

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has indicated that it was crucially short of funds to hold the June 27 runoff. ZANU-PF insiders confirm that South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki – who has been charged by Zimbabwe's neighboring countries to lead a mediation process in Zimbabwe – has assured the ZEC that it would provide whatever funding was necessary to hold the elections as planned.

James McGee, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, told the BBC news service that the current violence against opposition supporters made a runoff election impossible. He claimed to have evidence that state security agencies, including the police and Army, are involved in the violence against opposition members.

Yet former intelligence chief Dabengwa says he welcomes the runoff date in six weeks, because it forces both ZANU-PF and MDC to come to a negotiated settlement rather than face the cost and chaos of a new election.

For Dabengwa, and many other ZANU-PF members the thought of five more years of Mugabe's rule is an unpalatable prospect. Dabengwa was one of many senior ZANU-PF members to support an independent candidate, former Finance Minister Simba Makoni.

"We started saying to ourselves, are we really going to have Mugabe stand as our presidential candidate, with all the problems we have in the country, all the difficulties we are going through?" says Dabengwa. "And are we really going to contend for him and tell our people, you are going to vote for this man? For some of us, it was a very difficult prospect of supporting an idea like that."

Now, he says few ZANU-PF members support Mugabe from their hearts, and are opening channels with Tsvangirai's party to form a transitional government of national unity, to last a maximum of two years.

A reporter who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare, Zimbabwe.

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