Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's decision Sunday to pull out of Friday's runoff election is increasing international pressure on President Robert Mugabe to stop the violence and allow a peaceful transfer of power in Zimbabwe.
Now all eyes are trained on South African President Thabo Mbeki, who the SADC has charged with mediating a peaceful solution to the Zimbabwe crisis, including a possible unity government. "I would hope that the leadership [of both parties] would still be open to a process which would result in them coming to some agreement," he said.
Sunday's turn of events may succeed in saving lives – at a time when more than 80 opposition activists have been killed and thousands displaced by pro-government militias – but in diplomatic circles it has had the effect of an ultimatum.
And, as news broke that Mr. Tsvangirai is holing up in the Dutch Embassy in Harare for safety concerns, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Mugabe's government cannot be considered legitimate without a fair runoff.
Neighboring countries, frustrated with stalled talks under Mr. Mbeki's tenure may push for fresh efforts, or even for new leadership, in the talks for a power-sharing agreement, observers say. No new details on the makeup of a possible unity government have emerged, however.
"There has been a shift in sentiment on the continent, and not all of it is reported as fully as it should be," says Steven Friedman, a senior analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa, is now called. Not holding the runoff election "deprives Mugabe of his legitimacy," Mr. Friedman says, since the previous election of March 29 had him trailing Tsvangirai 47 percent to 43 percent.
While Mugabe is famously impervious to criticism, especially from the West, "effective isolation of the clique that runs Zimbabwe at the moment could create a situation where the mid-level and upper-level members of [Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party] reassess their options," says Friedman.
Until recently, African leaders have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe.
Mbeki's government – which currently chairs the UN Security Council – has twice blocked efforts to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis in Security Council meetings.
But all that may be changing, as it becomes clear that Zimbabwe's politics affects all its neighboring countries, sending millions of Zimbabwean refugees into places where they are often not wanted.
"[Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change] took the right decision," says Chris Maroleng, an expert on Zimbabwe at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane. "This stole the initiative from ZANU-PF."
Having won the first round of the election in March 29, Mr. Maroleng says, the MDC has enough clout to start talks toward a power-sharing agreement with ZANU-PF, and by pulling out of the second round, it has also shown that ZANU-PF's reign of terror undermines its legitimacy.
But in Harare, Tsvangirai's pullout is more controversial. "It is the most unwise decision that they have ever made," says former minister of information in Mugabe's administration, Jonathan Moyo. "How can they withdraw five days before the election and yet people were being beaten and killed all along?"
Mr. Moyo says it was unfortunate that Tsvangirai had made such a decision when all along he had been saying "no amount of violence or intimidation would stop the opposition from romping to victory."
Other political analysts view MDC's withdrawal from the race as a tactic to force Mugabe to stop his militias from committing acts of violence. They say Tsvangirai could still change his mind and reenter the election on Wednesday, when the party meets to review the situation.
Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) chairman George Chiweshe said he was not aware that the MDC had withdrawn from the election. "None of the two candidates has withdrawn from this election as far as we know. If the MDC is serious about withdrawing, it should follow the normal procedure of writing a withdrawal letter to the chief elections officer, which it has not done," Mr. Chiweshe told observers and journalists Monday.
The briefing was attended by observers for the SADC, AU, and the Pan-African Parliament.
Chiweshe, who said there was "no war" in the country, added that he was confident that the elections would be credible as well as free and fair despite the violence, which the MDC says has claimed 86 lives of its supporters.
"This is not a war. We don't have a war in the country. What we have are political candidates targeting each other at various times. As far as I am concerned, we will be able to have a credible election. I believe we will have a free and fair election but the problems of course are there," said Chiweshe, who was quick to add that "every election anywhere in the world has its own share of problems."
ZANU-PF's election spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa told state media that MDC has withdrawn from the runoff because it was afraid of being defeated.
• A reporter in Harare could not be named for security reasons.