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Amid Crackdown, Controversy Over Zimbabwe Presidential Runoff Delay

Zimbabwean state media reported Monday that the government rejected the demand by opposition leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai that international observers be in place for the presidential runoff election that authorities have called, saying no invitations would be extended unless Western sanctions are lifted.

The state-controlled Herald newspaper quoted Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa as saying Harare would not bow to pressure to invite United Nations and other Western observers to monitor conditions during the presidential run-off which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has called but for which it has set no firm date.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, meanwhile, reported an escalation of violence since Tsvangirai in a news conference in Pretoria on Saturday declared his willingness, subject to a number of conditions, to take part in the runoff. One of those conditions was an end to the post-election violence plaguing rural communities.

The government in recent days has widened a crackdown on the opposition and civil society, arresting two elected MDC lawmakers: Trevor Saruwaka of Mutasa Central constituency in Manicaland Province, and Heya Shoko of Bikita West, Masvingo.

Another MDC politician elected to parliament in March 29 elections, Misheck Shoko of the Chitungwiza South constituency, was detained for four hours last week by police who accused him of planning to raid a ZANU-PF youth militia base in rural Seke.

MDC sources said Tsvangirai has put on hold his plans to return to Harare this week. The government has intimated it may charge Tsvangirai and Tsvangirai MDC grouping Secretary General Tendai Biti with treason. But Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the two opposition figures have nothing to fear.

Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the Tsvangirai MDC formation told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Harare has narrowed the democratic space in Zimbabwe and now is targeting senior opposition members.

Chinamasa was quoted in The Chronicle, a Bulawayo-based state-run newspaper, as castigating Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, current chairman of the Southern African Development Community, for allegedly failing to urge the United States and Britain, among other nations imposing targeted sanctions, to lift them.

Chinamasa was quoted as saying that if the sanctions are not lifted, there would be no need for Harare to have a relationship with such countries such that it would be willing to invite them to send observer delegations to monitor the presidential run-off.

But University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe, a leading government critic, told reporter Patience Rusere that sanctions merely bar top government and ruling party officials from traveling to the countries imposing such sanctions, and therefore should stay in place until a new government is democratically elected.

Meanwhile, international observers as well as Zimbabwean voters awaited word on when the presidential run-off will be held. Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Chairman George Chiweshe said it was never realistic for it to be held within 21 days of when results were issued, but did not specify how much longer it might be put off.

His commission issued its election results on May 2, pointing to a late-May election if the electoral act's language were strictly observed. The commission said Tsvangirai received 47.9% of the vote, short of a majority, while President Robert Mugabe received 43.2%, concluding that a run-off election would be necessary.

The opposition and others have questioned the integrity of ZEC's data.

Though Chiweshe and some observers cite language in the electoral act empowering the commission to alter "any such period specified in this act," others challenge the commission's right to extend the deadline for the run-off beyond 21 days/

University of Zimbabwe law lecturer Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, told reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that if the government runs afoul of the law in allowing the commission to extend the deadline, the winner will be running the government “illegally.”

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