MAPUTO Southern African leaders on Saturday told Zimbabwe to ask its courts to extend a July 31 deadline to hold elections, 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 came two days after Mugabe declared the election day, a date immediately rejected by Tsvangirai, his partner in coalition and main political rival.
Mugabe had argued he was following an order from the Constitutional Court to hold the election by the end of July, but Tsvangirai said it was too soon to allow the reforms of the media and security forces required for a free and fair vote.
"The summit acknowledged the ruling of the constitutional court on the election date and it will be respected," Tomaz Salomao, Secretary General of SADC, said after the one-day meeting.
"What the summit recommended was, in recognizing that there was a need for more time, that the government of Zimbabwe engage the constitutional court to ask for more time beyond the deadline of July 31."
SADC leaders had earlier feared that hurrying the elections would increase the chances of a disputed result and violence.
In 2008 hundreds of Zimbabweans, mostly Tsvangirai's supporters, were beaten and killed, creating a flood of refugees into neighboring countries.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who is also secretary general of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party, said SADC had "ordered a return to constitutionalism".
"We Zimbabweans want an election yesterday. However, it must be legitimate and credible," Biti said.
The SADC summit, postponed by a week at Mugabe's request, had also been expected to discuss finance for the elections, expected to cost the cash-strapped country $132 million.
But the funding was not debated during the summit.
The summit did discuss developments in Madagascar, which slid into turmoil after disc jockey-turned-politician Andry Rajoelina seized power from Marc Ravalomanana with military support in 2009.
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.
The summit said there was need for international political and diplomatic pressure for "illegitimate presidential candidates to withdraw their candidatures for the sake of peace and stability in Madagascar".
(Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; writing by Olivia Kumwenda; editing by Andrew Roche)