A new phase of Zimbabwe's long-running electoral saga opened late this week as the Harare government finally set June 27 as the date for a presidential run-off between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai amid continuing political violence in the country's rural areas mainly targeting Tsvangirai backers.
His formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change said it would take up the electoral gauntlet once more though objecting that a run-off should not have been necessary, as the MDC contends Tsvangirai won an outright first-round majority, and also arguing that the run-off should have been scheduled over a month earlier.
Opposition officials said that if a run-off had to be held, it should have been scheduled within the statutory deadline of 21 days from the announcement of official first-round results on May 2 by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission - that is, on May 23. The commission said Tsvangirai received 47.9% of the vote, Mr. Mugabe 43.2%.
As matters stand, Tsvangirai and his MDC grouping now face a six-week campaign in an environment in which many rural voters have been traumatized by intimidation and violence by youth militia and war veterans associated with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party - which has denied responsibility and blamed the MDC for the violence.
Tsvangirai's own safety is seen at risk, to such an extent that the Southern African Development Community has reportedly dispatched operatives to protect him.
The June 27 election date was announced late Thursday in an extraordinary edition of the government Gazette, which stated that a “poll shall be taken” that day “for the purpose of electing a person to the office of president."
President Mugabe met with the ZANU-PF central committee late Thursday to examine his campaign strategy. Mr. Mugabe acknowledged that the first-round results were "indeed disastrous" due to poor preparation, vowing to win the second round.
Tsvangirai told reporters on Friday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that he will contest the run-off, though he expressed objections to the date. He added, however, that "I know the MDC will form the next government, and I call on our African brothers and sisters to assist us to ensure that there is a smooth transfer of power."
MDC Elections Director Ian Makone told reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the party will do what it must to free the Zimbabwean people from "bondage" under President Mugabe and his long-dominant ZANU-PF, though he acknowledged that violence in rural areas will complicate campaigning.
Tsvangirai was due back in Harare on Saturday, and MDC sources said his security will be ensured with help from the Southern African Development Community.
Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe said the first item on Tsvangirai's agenda would be to address an inaugural meeting of the MDC parliamentary caucus - in effect highlighting the majority the combined MDC won in the March 29 general election. The two MDC formations have agreed to work as one in exercising that majority.
Elsewhere, Tsvangirai's MDC formation appeared to have cleared the way for a major rally Sunday in Bulawayo to celebrate that victory and welcome Tsvangirai home after weeks spent shuttling between capitals - mostly southern African - trying to drum up diplomatic support for the MDC's contention he had won the presidency.
The Bulawayo high court overturned a police ban on the rally when top officials named in the MDC application to the court failed to appear for a hearing.
MDC lawer Job Sibanda said Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi and the police officer in charge of Bulawayo West did not show up to respond to the MDC suit, so Justice Maphios Cheda ruled for the opposition party, adding that the court told police not to interfere with the rally unless someone in the stadium violated the law.
With the run-off election scheduled, reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe sought the views of two experts on how it will go: independent member of parliament Jonathan Moyo, a former ZANU-PF information minister, and Zimbabwe Election Support Network Chairman Noel Kututwa.
Moyo said he agreed with the MDC that the electoral commission should have called the election within the statutory 21 days after announcing results, rather than invoking a loophole in electoral legislation and extending that deadline by 90 days.
More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...