Representatives of Zimbabwe's ruling party and opposition met Thursday in Pretoria, South Africa, for preliminary discussions aimed setting ground rules for more substantive talks on a power-sharing formula to end the crisis that has gripped the country since national elections in March and intensified with a widely condemned June 27 presidential runoff ballot.
The legitimacy of post-colonial leader Robert Mugabe's presidential mandate is one of the key issues that representatives of Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party and both formations of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change will have to resolve to move forward, as the MDC refuses to recognize his re-election on June 27.
MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the presidential run-off contest on June 22 due to proliferating and increasingly deadly political violence which most observers say has been organized and carried out by ZANU-PF and members of the youth militia it controls.
Cessation of such violence, which the Tsvangirai branch of the MDC says has claimed the lives of some 112 party officials, members and supporters, is an MDC condition for moving on to substantive issues such as the proposed formation of a government of national unity.
South African-based political analyst Hermann Hanekom told VOA reporter Blessing Zulu that ZANU-PF badly needs the talks to yield results to legitimize its continued rule.
Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga confirmed the preliminary talks had opened.
The office of South African President Thabo Mbeki is treating the discussions as a resumption of the crisis resolution process mediated by Mr. Mbeki under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community between March 2007 and January 2008, when those discussions dead-ended when Mr. Mugabe rejected some key compromises.However, Tsvangirai issued a statement later Thursday saying his representatives in Pretoria had joined the meeting "solely to present the conditions under which genuine negotiations can take place and the mechanism under which these negotiations will be conducted" in accordance with a resolution issued by last week's African Union summit.
The statement issued in Tsvangirai's name said "those people portraying this meeting as the beginning of negotiations...are being disingenuous" and exploitative of the crisis.
He underscored the MDC position that political violence had to stop before any substantive power-sharing negotiations could proceed. No such talks can take place "while the ZANU-PF regime continues to wage war on my party and the people of Zimbabwe," he said.
Sources in Pretoria said the parties were discussing the “mechanics” or “modalities” of the talks – how they should proceed and what conditions each of the parties demanded.
Diplomatic sources said a proposed visit to Harare by AU Chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping was now uncertain as the two had engaged Mr. Mbeki at the Group of Eight summit which concluded this week in Japan.
The MDC and other parties, including the United States government, had urged the African Union to take a more direct role in solving the Zimbabwe crisis, but AU leaders have been and remain reluctant to appear to be shouldering aside Mr. Mbeki as sole mediator.
But diplomatic sources said it was only after Mr. Mbeki met with the top AU officials that his MDC formation agreed to take part in the preliminary discussions. Tsvangirai had urged the AU to expand the mediation process by appointing its own permanent envoy.
Representing ZANU-PF at Thursday's meeting were Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labor Minister Nicholas Goche. The Tsvangirai MDC was represented by Secretary General Tendai Biti and Deputy Treasurer Elton Mangoma. The Arthur Mutambara formation sent its secretary general, Welshman Ncube, and his deputy, Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga.
Meanwhile, a United Nations Security Council resolution providing for additional sanctions on Harare had yet to come up for a vote in New York. U.N. spokesman Yves Sokorobi said early Thursday that no date for a vote had been set. The U.S. delegation sought a vote on the measure on Wednesday, but two key Security Council members, Russia and China, which could veto the sanctions resolution, said they were not ready to cast their votes.
Zimbabwe’s U.N. Ambassador, Boniface Chidyausiku, told Blessing Zulu that Washington did not follow U.N. protocol, leading to the failure to put the resolution on the table.
Vietnam's permanent representative to the U.N., currently in the Security Council chair, said that no formal request for a vote on the resolution had been submitted, but he also added that he wanted to see what emerged from the Pretoria talks before proceeding. Vietnam is among those countries believed likely to vote against the sanctions resolution.
"We have been seeing efforts under way by the African Union and SADC and we think those efforts should be supported," AFP quoted Le Luong Minh as saying.
Minh said the United States had not sought a Thursday vote after unsuccessfully seeking one late Wednesday. AFP quoted a senior official at the U.S. State Department official as citing procedural objections raised by Russia and China to the proposed Wednesday vote.
The official told AFP that consultations were under way to determine whether a vote could be held on Friday but issued the caveat: "I never put a timeline on this."