PRETORIA (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s opposition leader said on Saturday he would return home within two days to contest a run-off election against President Robert Mugabe and deal him a “final knock-out” after almost three decades in power.
But chances of a speedy end to a tense political stalemate since a disputed March 29 election appeared remote, after the justice minister rejected Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s preconditions for taking part in a run-off.
Tsvangirai said he would only participate if international observers and media were given full access to ensure the vote is fair. He said the country’s electoral commission was discredited and should be revamped, and called on the regional SADC grouping to send peacekeepers to instill public confidence in the vote.
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa shrugged off the demands.
“The run-off will be held within the framework of the constitution and the electoral laws. There will be no conditionalities that will be outside this framework,” he told Reuters.
After weeks of equivocation, Tsvangirai said he would contest a new round of voting although he believes he won outright in the first round. The MDC accuses the ruling ZANU-PF of intimidating and attacking voters.
“The MDC ... will contest the run-off. I am ready, and the people are ready for the final round,” Tsvangirai told a news conference in South Africa.
Official results showed ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence in 1980, and that Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the presidential poll, but not by enough votes to avoid a run-off. Both the government and opposition have challenged some of the results.
Zimbabweans have been hoping for an end to the political stalemate, which has triggered fears of widespread violence and even greater instability.
Voters had thought the ballot might help end an economic meltdown that has triggered chronic food and fuel shortages, 80 percent unemployment, inflation of 165,000 percent and a flood of millions of refugees to neighboring countries.
The MDC, rights groups and Western nations have accused ZANU-PF of launching a campaign of violence to ensure Mugabe wins any run-off. ZANU-PF denies the charge and accuses the MDC of carrying out attacks.
“Legally this election should be no later than May 24th ... and that is the date we are preparing for,” Tsvangirai said.
“If ZANU-PF and the ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) hope to retain what little credibility they have left they will abide by the law and declare the presidential run-off election between today and that date.”
The ZEC will set the date of the runoff. By law, a second round should be held within 21 days of the result, announced on May 2. But the ZEC has the power to extend it, and Tsvangirai’s conditions have added a new variable to the process.
Susan Booysen, an analyst at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, said allowing in international observers would “pull the rug out from under ZANU-PF”.
Mugabe’s government has barred most international observers from past polls. It has allowed some regional states to monitor them and has invited observers from Russia.
Washington on Saturday called for human rights and election monitors to be present in Zimbabwe for a run-off.
“Opposition leaders and supporters must be able to freely campaign free of violence,” a White House spokesman said.
Zimbabwean political commentator Eldred Masunungure said Tsvangirai’s demands would be hard to meet in a short time-frame.
“Two weeks is a short time for observers to get in and make some effective presence on the ground,” he said.
Analysts say an end to Mugabe’s rule may bring sorely-needed international aid, but if the former guerrilla leader stays on, the economic crisis is likely to deepen.
Additional reporting by Phakamisa Ndzamela; writing by Caroline Drees; editing by Andrew Roche