June 25, 2008 / 2:37 AM / in 11 years

Zimbabwe's neighbors urge poll postponement

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s neighbors on Wednesday urged the postponement of Friday’s presidential election, saying the re-election of President Robert Mugabe could lack legitimacy in the current violent climate.

Supporters cheer as Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe addresses an election rally in Banket, west of the capital Harare, June 24, 2008. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The call by a security troika of southern African nations put the heaviest pressure yet on Mugabe, who has so far defied a storm of international condemnation of bloody violence following the first round of elections on March 29.

Regional power South Africa added to the pressure, saying a top negotiator was in Harare mediating talks on options including postponement of the vote.

But Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission (ZEC) ruled that last Sunday’s withdrawal from the election by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had no legal force and the poll would go ahead.

U.S. President George W. Bush said the polls had no credibility.

Friday’s presidential elections “appear to be a sham,” Bush said at the White House after meeting members of the U.N. Security Council. “The Mugabe government is intimidating people on the ground in Zimbabwe,” he said.

Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the contest because of violence which has killed almost 90 of his followers, called for the African Union, backed by the United Nations, to lead a transition in Zimbabwe.

A security troika of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said after meeting near the Swazi capital Mbabane: “It is the considered opinion of the organ summit that holding the election under the current circumstances may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of its outcome.”

It said the group had been briefed by South African President Thabo Mbeki, the designated SADC mediator in Zimbabwe, on Tuesday.

Mbeki has previously been widely criticized for taking an ineffective soft line with Mugabe. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Wednesday called for a new mediator.

“TRAGIC FAILURE”

The crisis prompted former South African President Nelson Mandela to break his silence over the situation in Zimbabwe and criticize the country’s leaders.

In a speech at a dinner in London, he said there was a “tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe.

The troika, comprising Tanzania — the African Union chairman — Swaziland and Angola, urged talks between government and opposition before a new date was set for the presidential run-off.

Tsvangirai spoke at a news conference at his home after leaving the Dutch embassy where he took refuge after announcing the pull-out last Sunday. But he returned to the embassy later.

He told reporters: “I am asking the AU and SADC to lead an expanded initiative supported by the U.N. to manage what I will call a transitional process.”

Bush called on the African Union at its upcoming meeting to highlight “the illegitimacy of the elections” in Zimbabwe.

The opposition leader said the election would not be accepted either by Zimbabweans or the world.

Pressure has mounted both inside and outside Africa to call off the vote since Tsvangirai withdrew. Mugabe, 84, is now certain to be elected to extend his 28-year rule.

South African spokesman Themba Maseko told Reuters: “The facilitation talks between the various parties in Zimbabwe are looking at all aspects that will bring a possible settlement ... all options are being considered which would, I suspect, include the possibility of a postponement.”

He said senior negotiator Sydney Mufamadi was in Harare talking both to the government and opposition.

Human rights organizations, Western powers and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change accused Mugabe of launching a campaign of murder and intimidation after he and his ZANU-PF party lost the first round of elections.

Tsvangirai fell short of the absolute majority required for outright victory in that vote.

Mugabe, in power since 1980, has presided over a slide into economic chaos.

Slideshow (23 Images)

In the first concrete step to punish Mugabe for the violence, Britain said it was preparing tougher sanctions against specific members of Zimbabwe’s government.

Tsvangirai said that while he was prepared to negotiate with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF before Friday, his MDC would “not have anything to do” with a government that emerged from the vote.

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Mbabane, Cris Chinaka in Harare, Marius Bosch, Gordon Bell, Michael Georgy and Muchena Zigomo in Johannesburg, Duncan Miriri in Nairobi, Katherine Baldwin and David Clarke in London and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Writing by Barry Moody)

For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/

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