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As Zimbabwe Crisis Talks Resume, Constitutional Issues Come To Fore

South African-mediated crisis talks between Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Change have resumed following last month's Southern African Development Community summit, with the focus on constitutional issues.

South African sources said ZANU-PF negotiators have rejected an opposition call for a full revision of Zimbabwe's constitution and want to press on with an amendment of the basic document that makes major changes to the electoral dispensation.

Opposition negotiators have signaled that persistence with the amendment would kill off the talks - which ZANU-PF sources said explains why the government has delayed tabling the controversial legislation in parliament despite the urgency of resolving the issues on the table with presidential and general elections looming in March 2008.

Sources in Pretoria said South African President Thabo Mbeki was striving mightily to rebuild momentum in the talks, and was trying to convince ruling party negotiators to put the constitutional amendment on hold to let the opposition weigh in on the bill.

ZANU-PF representatives Patrick Chinamasa and Nicholas Goche, respectively the ministers of justice and labor, arrived Friday in Pretoria in time for three days of talks with the two secretaries general of the divided opposition: Tendai Biti of the faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube of the Arthur Mutambara formation.

Mr. Mbeki in recent weeks has repeatedly expressed the believe that the talks would yield results. But there is widespread skepticism, not only among political analysts but from hawks within ZANU-PF who want the ruling party to go its own way.

National Constitutional Assembly Director Ernest Mudzengi told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the MDC will be shortchanged if it accepts piecemeal constitutional reforms.

Despite ZANU-PF's apparent reluctance to take up constitutional reform, parliament later this week this week give the Zimbabwean public a chance to comment on the proposed 18th amendment to the constitution.

Hosted by the parliamentary Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, public hearings will be held in Harare on Thursday, September 6, in Bulawayo on Friday, September 7, and in Gweru on Saturday, September 8.

A committee official said announcements have been placed in all of the major papers encouraging citizens to show up and express their views on the legislation. Those not able to attend the hearings can submit their comments in writing.

But many are doubtful whether Zimbabwe's ruling party will take the views of ordinary citizens into account as it finalizes the language of an amendment which in its draft form is considered by many to bolster ZANU-PF's electoral position.

Besides moving the general election up from 2010 to next year, the amendment would add 60 seats to the lower house and oblige the opposition to compete in a total of 80 additional constituencies (20 appointive seats will be filled through balloting).

It also provides for parliament to select a new president in case of death, disability or retirement - possibly letting President Robert Mugabe select his own successor.

Executive Director David Chiminhi of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyelye that while the hearing initiative is commendable, what remains to be seen is how open the government will show itself to public opinion.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...