MAPUTO Southern African leaders gathered on Saturday to try to draw up a road map for elections in Zimbabwe, amid high tension between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai over the timing of the vote.
The summit of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the Mozambican capital comes two days after Mugabe declared July 31 as election day, a date immediately rejected by Tsvangirai, his partner in a coalition and his main political rival.
Mugabe argues that he is simply following an order from the Constitutional Court to hold the election by the end of July, but Tsvangirai says it is too soon to allow the reforms of the media and security forces required for a free and fair vote.
Regional leaders must decide whether Mugabe was acting on his own when he declared the election date, thereby breaking an agreement brokered by SADC after violent and disputed elections in 2008.
The deal five years ago gave birth to a fractious unity government that nevertheless managed to stabilize the economy after nearly a decade of decline and hyperinflation.
The SADC summit, postponed by a week on Mugabe's request, is also due to discuss finance for the elections, which are expected to cost the cash-strapped country $132 million, and the number of regional election observers.
SADC leaders fear that hurrying the elections will increase the chances of a disputed result and violence.
Human Rights Watch said SADC should press Zimbabwe's unity government for the reforms before elections.
"SADC should immediately send enough long-term election observers to promote a human rights environment conducive to credible, free and fair elections," Tiseke Kasambala, Human Rights Watch Southern Africa director, said.
In 2008 hundreds of Zimbabweans, mostly Tsvangirai's supporters, were beaten and killed, creating a flood of refugees into neighboring countries.
The South African government said the summit was also expected to discuss developments in Madagascar, which slid into turmoil after disc jockey-turned-politician Andry Rajoelina seized power from Marc Ravalomanana with military support.
Foreign donors froze budget support and the Indian Ocean island was suspended from the African Union. Succumbing to regional pressure, both men agreed in January not to run in a presidential election in August.
But Ravalomanana's wife then said she would contest the election, a decision that led current president Rajoelina to rejoin the presidential race.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Roche)