July 30, 2003

Political thaw raises hope of talks

Should talks resume between Zimbabwe's rival political parties, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is likely to insist on the government restoring the "rule of law", analysts told IRIN. Efforts to reopen the dialogue between the ruling ZANU-PF and the MDC have intensified in recent weeks with the country's clergy stepping in as mediators.

The MDC on Wednesday confirmed that its president, Morgan Tsvangirai, had met with local church leaders in a bid to get the stalled talks restarted, as a first step on the road to a negotiated settlement of the Zimbabwean crisis. The clergy was awaiting written responses from both parties, which could lead to a formal meeting, the local Daily News newspaper reported.

Zimbabwe Council of Churches president Bishop Sebastian Bakare is leading the church delegation. He is accompanied by Trevor Manhanga, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and Patrick Mutume of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference. The apparent "public" thaw in relations between the opposition and the government came last week after the MDC attended the opening of parliament. Opposition MPs last year boycotted the occasion, saying they did not recognise the legitimacy of President Robert Mugabe as the head of state. The MDC is challenging Mugabe's victory in court, alleging that the polls held in March 2002 were marred by violence, intimidation and vote-rigging.

Noting recent statements made by the MDC, observers said Mugabe's legitimacy would continue to surface throughout the proposed dialogue, but it would take a back seat to some of the more pressing issues facing the country. The MDC's legal affairs secretary, David Coltart, told IRIN: "If the talks between the MDC and ZANU-PF are done in an earnest way, and endorsed by the international community, we will consider holding in abeyance the presidential challenge. We have also said if the talks yield a final agreement with constitutional guarantees then the MDC will withdraw the election petition." The court challenge is due to start on 3 November. "The key issue the MDC is likely to raise during the talks is the restoration of the rule of law, and that includes repealing repressive laws which restrict political activity," chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network Reginald Matchaba-Hove said. Human rights groups argue that the Public Order and Safety Act, for example, pushed through parliament in 2001, severely curtails political expression. The act bans any political gathering without police consent.

Another issue which should be urgently addressed, Matchaba-Hove added, was the humanitarian crisis now affecting close to five million Zimbabweans. "It is important that the leaders consider the seriousness of the humanitarian needs in the country and jointly produce a solid programme to sell to donors. Inflation is now close to 365 percent, which is an indication of how badly the economy is doing. In tandem to all of the other pressing issues, there should be a discussion of the drawing-up of a new constitution which is democratic, and allows for checks and balances. The discussion should focus on addressing electoral reform to ensure that the next election would be substantially free and fair. Mugabe's legitimacy is a detail which can be discussed at a later stage," he said.

Crisis in Zimbabwe spokeswoman Everjoyce Win agreed, saying that changes to the country's constitution were key to resolving the political impasse. "The talks should not focus on who has the right to govern or not, but address fundamental shortcomings of the constitution. Talks should consider how the rule of law has been subverted, and what can be done to restore some legitimacy to the state," she said.

Mugabe's government walked out of political talks with the MDC in April 2002 after the opposition went to court to challenge the presidential election result, saying mediation efforts must wait until the courts ruled on the case. The latest initiative by the clergy follows other attempts by African leaders who include Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi. In March Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Anglican Church in Cape Town came to Zimbabwe leading a delegation of church members and civic groups to try and mediate between the two parties. During his visit Archbishop Ndungane met President Mugabe, civic organisations, church leaders and Mr Tsvangirai. The church played a pivotal role in the talks between Zanu-PF and PF- Zapu which culminated in the 1987 Unity Accord. (IRIN / The Herald, Harare)

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