TALKS between the ruling Zanu PF and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) entered a critical stage this week with the two parties res
uming negotiations in Pretoria, South Africa, as they race against time to meet a new deadline in a week’s time.
Sources close to the talks said the two parties are now engaged in a make-or-break phase of the talks, with discussions revolving around the contentious final agenda item, the political climate, which has proved to be a difficult issue for the negotiators. An inside source described the latest developments as tantamount to “war”.
“There is war at the negotiating table now,” a source close to the talks said. “They have been meeting every day in Harare before they went to Pretoria, but things are extremely difficult now. The jury is still out, but this is the crunch time and anything can happen.”
The parties are battling over the demilitarisation of state institutions, the use of militias, abuse of state food aid and traditional chiefs, sanctions, land and hostile political rhetoric. These issues have polarised the negotiations again.
The full agenda includes the constitution, electoral laws, security legislation, media laws and political climate.
The parties have agreed on a draft constitution, electoral laws, security and media laws, although they would go back to put final touches on these issues after clearing the last item.
The comprehensive package would be taken to parliament for ratification and be implemented in terms of the agreed transitional mechanisms and dates.
Implementation of the envisaged agreement is one of the sticking points. For instance, Zanu PF may accept a new constitution after the elections, but the MDC wants it before the polls.
The MDC also wants elections delayed until June next year, but Zanu PF wants them in March at all costs.
Reforming the repressive laws has been convoluted. At least 11 drafts were done on the Public Order and Security Act as part of attempts to amend the law.
After intense debate, it was agreed that the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act would be amended to ensure that the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC) would no longer have the discretion to deny journalists accreditation, sources said.
Any journalist who applies will be automatically accredited, although those without accreditation would not have access to events like government press conferences or official functions where MIC cards would be needed, it was said.
Unaccredited journalists will be free to work, but the need to access press conferences and other things would compel them to get registered. The Broadcasting Act would now be amended to ensure prospective private broadcasters are not blocked through technicalities, it was said. So far even if the state broadcasting monopoly was stuck off by the courts a few years ago, government is still refusing to issue licences to alternative broadcasters.
Zanu PF is demanding that foreign radio stations on shortwave be restricted out of Zimbabwe. This includes radio stations like VOA’s Studio 7 which broadcasts from Washington and SW Radio Africa from London. The MDC has no jurisdiction over these stations, which complicates the talks.
The parties are also grappling with other addendum issues on the agenda like transitional mechanisms and the date of elections – which will come right at the end of the talks. This controversial issue is likely to be the most decisive part of dialogue because while the negotiators are generally agreed that polls may need to be postponed to June or another date, President Mugabe is insisting on the March date, sources said.
Mugabe apparently thinks he stands a better chance of winning in March because the MDC is divided and does not want to give it time to recover by postponing elections.
Sources said Zanu PF negotiators have been told following reports that they are amenable to postponement of elections that there is no compromise on this issue.
Meanwhile, MDC representatives have taken the position that if there is no compromise on the date of elections, they would simply walk out of the talks, informed sources said. This is because the MDC strongly feels there is no adequate time to prepare for free and fair elections between now and March.
Preparations for elections have been slow largely because of lack of enough funding and logistical problems. The MDC also wants six months from the date of agreement to the polls to ensure enough time to implement the accord.
Evidence that the MDC — at least the Morgan Tsvangirai faction — was now geared for a showdown over the talks emerged on Wednesday after the group held an extraordinary National Executive meeting and resolved to put what amounts to benchmarks on what the talks should achieve for them to be considered successful.
The MDC said it wants an immediate end to political violence and use of food a political weapon, a new voters’ roll, transparent delimitation of the constituencies, the need to reconstitute the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and monitoring of the elections by the international community at large.
The MDC is demanding Zimbabweans abroad should be allowed to vote, an issue Zanu PF wants to avoid at all costs. Zanu PF has been arguing it would not allow this because it is unable to travel overseas to Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand to campaign due to travel bans. It has been saying if the MDC wants those abroad to vote it must first get the sanctions removed to ensure that its leaders are free to go and campaign.
The MDC also wants a new constitution before the elections after it backed Zanu PF’s constitutional amendment to introduce political reforms widely seen as part of Mugabe’s survival plan.
However, as the Zimbabwe Independent has always pointed out, Mugabe and the Zanu PF politburo on September 5 took a position that they would not accept a new constitution before elections. This is another issue which might break the talks as well. Mugabe, evidently afraid of the use of secret ballot in his own party, fears if he fights polls under a new constitution, he could easily be defeated.
The strategy for Zanu PF, sources said, is to make as little concessions as possible to ensure that the final agreement does not rock the edifice. So far Zanu PF has stuck to its game plan, while the MDC has made concessions, like backing Constitutional Amendment Number 18, without reciprocation.
Mugabe does not miss an opportunity to thank the regional facilitator of talks South African President Thabo Mbeki for how the negotiations have thus far progressed. He repeated his gratitude to Mbeki during his state of the nation address on Tuesday. In September Mugabe told the UN General Assembly Mbeki had done a good job, leaving many wondering what really was going on behind-the-scenes.
At the September 5 Zanu PF politburo, Mugabe and his deputy Joseph Msika praised the ruling party negotiators for holding the line in the talks.
Mbeki was recently in the country to put pressure of Mugabe and the MDC to speed up talks which he wants finished before his party conference which starts on December 16 to 20.
Mbeki is facing imminent eviction from the ANC leadership by Jacob Zuma and negotiators fear this might affect talks unless they are completed before the ANC gathering.
The new deadline for talks in December 15, the day when the Zanu PF congress would be closing its congress, which means the agreement, if reached, would not be endorsed by the party’s highest decision-making body which would have approved the 18th constitutional amendment.
Tsvangirai’s camp will meet on December 16 to review progress on the talks and the group might reject the agreement unless negotiators wring serious concessions from Zanu PF. Tsvangirai has of late been publicly expressing doubts about the talks. Insiders say the other danger is the agreement might be rejected by the parties or their principals.
Sources said Zanu PF, sources said, does not mind making concessions on electoral law reforms, Posa, Aippa, as well as the Broadcasting Act as long as this would not affect its grip on power.
Sources said although Zanu PF and the MDC have covered a lot of ground so far — having completed a new draft constitution and agreed on all but one item on the agenda — there have been serious hurdles along the way which have pushed the talks deadline from September to next week.