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After the Elections

Zimbabwe at the Crossroads

Julius Dawu, World Press Review correspondent, Harare, Zimbabwe, April 18, 2002

Morgan Tsvangirai
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai at a press conference on March 19, 2002 (Photo: AFP).   
On April 18, Zimbabwe celebrated 22 years of independence amid fears for the country’s future. Talks aimed at reconciling Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) with the largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), after a hotly disputed election have suffered a bad start. The outcome of the talks will determine Zimbabwe’s fate for years to come. Many fear that if the two parties do not come to a mutually acceptable agreement, the country’s next 22 years will be marked by conflict and strife.

Opinion in the streets of Harare and on the pages of Zimbabwe’s press indicates the talks could go either way. They could foster constructive conversations that will reopen the spigot of foreign aid suspended after the election, or they could deteriorate into dead dialogue. Facilitators of the talks, South Africa and Nigeria, hope the meetings will help turn around the country’s economic and political fortunes. But pessimists in Zimbabwe and abroad dismiss the dialogue as a ZANU-PF monologue and a waste of time.

Zimbabwe, a former investment crown jewel in Southern Africa, is now a pariah state facing international isolation after Robert Mugabe’s disputed victory in last month’s elections. International organizations have backed calls for a unity government. But the ZANU-PF and the MDC have not yet agreed to put such a government on the talks’ agenda, and are certainly a long way from any agreement on what the contours of such a government might be.

The MDC insists that the election was conducted unfairly and must be conducted again. The ZANU-PF steadfastly refuses to consider the idea. Yet MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai told a rally on April 14 that his party was in the talks mainly to ask for new elections. The talks have been adjourned until May 13 to give time for each party to agree on an agenda. Observers here speculate that the agenda might include limitations on Mugabe’s tenure, the restoration of law and order, and the preservation of national sovereignty. ZANU-PF has indicated it will not negotiate with an unpatriotic opposition and will not consider changing laws or the constitution at the talks. Who then will compromise?

Harare’s government-owned Chronicle (April 11, 2002) dismissed Tsvangirai’s call for a re-election, blaming him for using donor money to destroy the national economy and make Zimbabwe ungovernable. "We are convinced that if there was no donor money to squander for the likes of Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe would not be facing the problems it faces today," the paper’s editors explained. "Now there is stupid talk about an election rerun when MDC officials know clearly that their party lost because it failed to channel funds toward the presidential campaign."

Even the opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent criticized the MDC for not making its position sufficiently clear. In an April 12 editorial headlined, "It’s time for the MDC to spell things out," the weekly asked why the ruling party was bothering with the talks if it has more to lose than to gain. "This is the heart of the matter. There can be no lasting solution to the problem of political crime if the thief is allowed to keep his stolen goods…. Zimbabweans want real democracy, not the fake version ZANU-PF is hawking.… It is essential these talks not be used by ZANU-PF to hold international doors open. The MDC must impose a strict timeframe, articulate its democratic goals, and decline to be co-opted by an utterly discredited regime."

"Mission: Impossible" is how Harare’s weekly Financial Gazette, which supports the MDC, described the future of the talks in its April 11 editorial. It cited a surge of recent attacks against MDC followers, new and harsh laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which criminalizes press criticism of President Mugabe and broadens police powers to disperse demonstrations, and the unending dispute over the presidential ballot.

"The publicly stated demands of the opposing camps are poles apart and, as rightly stated by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, [the talks are] like mixing oil and water," the editorial continued. "While a determined human spirit is capable of doing almost anything other than stopping death, it is hard to see what will come out of the talks, however noble the intentions of the facilitators who also wish Zimbabwe well."

Some analysts have viewed the adjournment of the talks as giving Mugabe more time to sell the legitimacy of his re-election to a divided country. This added time, according to the Gazette’s editors, will also help "reopen the closed taps of international aid and investment which Zimbabwe desperately needs to prevent total economic collapse and Somali-style chaos."

Geoffrey Nyarota, the editor of the pro-opposition Daily News who was arrested on April 15 for publishing a story claiming the elections had been conducted fraudulently, also doubts the talks will succeed unless both parties are given a deadline to reach an agreement. When the Daily News hit Harare newsstands on April 15, the paper’s editorial looked at the talks with skepticism: "Without [a deadline], ZANU-PF will continue to string the MDC along, because it is in its interests to be seen to be talking.… The consequences of the talks failing, and [of ZANU-PF’s] unwillingness to comply with the demand for a presidential poll rerun within 12 months must be spelled out to the government," observed the Daily News.

Ahead of the resumption of the talks, the MDC has petitioned the High Court to nullify the March presidential elections. An April 14 unsigned editorial in Harare’s government-owned weekly Sunday News called the legal challenge a waste of time. "Now it is time for MDC members to decide whether Mr. Tsvangirai’s oversized ego is more important than the national interest and the survival of the party," the paper suggested.

In contrast, Harare’s centrist Zimbabwe Mirror, said the initial talks lacked depth in addressing economic issues and that it is time the talks translated into action. "The talks about talks have served an important political function.… [But] there was hardly any substantive reference to the economic questions that cry out loud in Zimbabwe. It has to be emphasized that the main objective of the ZANU-PF/MDC talks was to establish the framework for dialogue, toward addressing the macro-economic situation, including the food crisis," the Zimbabwe Mirror’s April 12 editorial reminded its readers.

Come May 13, the world will be watching and listening. The talks have given Zimbabwe a golden opportunity to make political and economic amends. Will the dialogue deliver a decision or further tarnish the country’s damaged democracy?

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