MDC cannot afford to talk to ZANU-PF

Though under pressure from leaders of the Southern African Development Community who forced the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to the same conference for the first time in September, the MDC cannot afford to talk to ZANU-PF because this could cost it its credibility.

While the MDC may be willing to talk to prove that it is not the stumbling block in solving the present crisis in Zimbabwe which has reduced the second largest economy in the southern Africa from a breadbasket to a basket case, supporters of the MDC cannot entertain any talks with President Mugabe.

They believe they are a waste of time as Mugabe has proved over the past three to four years that he is only interested in power and is prepared to sacrifise the country and his own people to retain that power.

SADC leaders led by Malawi president Bakili Muluzi did not mince their words when they met in Harare in September to try to find a solution to the country's crisis. Their efforts were buoyed by the fact that Mugabe had endorsed the Commonwealth-sponsored Abuja Agreement which is expected to pave way for orderly land reform and the return to rule of law in return for financial assistance, mainly from Britain.

With the country's economic problems worsening the ruling ZANU-PF is increasingly losing support, even from its rural stronghold. With the escalating cost of living and inflation at 86 percent, more and more working people are joining the ranks of the poor. Although the ruling party might argue that it had lost the support of the workers anyway, the workers' vote is crucial in the coming presidential elections, unless there is apathy.

ZANU-PF has also lost the crucial vote of the youths as they are facing critical unemployment, now reported to be over 60 percent. This year alone more than 400 companies have closed, pushing more workers out of jobs.

Its only support base are the war veterans who can beat up and bully people, especially in the rural areas, to vote for the ruling party. War veterans are for the fast-track resettlement while the Abuja Agreement talks about gradual resettlement.

War veterans say this is a non-starter because gradual resettlement will mean another 20 years or so before people get their land back. If ZANU-PF loses the war veterans, it has lost the elections.

Already junior intelligence officers are reported to have asked Mugabe not to contest the 2002 elections but he does not seem to have listened.

This seems to be good news for Tsvangirai but he must tread his ground carefully. If he publicly states that he does not want to talk to Mugabe, he is likely to lose support from regional and international leaders. If he says he wants to talk, he will lose support from the people that matter most, the voters.

Supporters of the MDC, sources say, have given Tsvangirai the mandate to kick Mugabe out not to negotiate with him as nothing will come out from any talks with Mugabe.

Observers say the so-called talks between the two parties are taking place at a very low level. Reports say those talking are mostly business people who would like to see an end to the current economic crisis. Besides, the MDC does not have any reason to talk to ZANU-PF. Things are going their way.

The MDC has just received a tremendous boost from the local government elections in Masvingo and Bulawayo where its mayoral candidates won.

In Bulawayo its candidate polled more than 60 000 votes while the ZANU-PF candidate won 12 000. "What this 5-1 victory means is that the MDC needs to score very well in urban areas and overwhelm the rural vote which ZANU-PF is banking on," one political observer said.

"Anyone who wins the urban vote will have won the presidential elections. It is that simple because the presidential elections are one big constituency, that is why ZANU-PF has been trying hard to lure that vote. It has tried the urban commuter trains but they have not succeeded. It has tried price controls, allocating land to the urban people, dishing out loans for projects and beating up people, but all this has not worked."

Although the MDC has so far lost all rural by-elections, observers say one of the things in its favour is that it won some last year and this should cushion it next year.

They also say timing of the elections will be crucial. If Mugabe decides to have the elections in January, as some reports have claimed -- arguing that he wants to hold elections before the economy worsens- this could cost him the rural vote as this will be in the middle of the rainy season.

Some places would be inaccessible. This could therefore tilt the elections in favour of the MDC as urban voters would not have any problems.

If he delays them until April, things would have become so bad that people would just want Mugabe out. The biggest advantage for the MDC is the economy.

Most Zimbabweans have now been hit so hard that they feel that anyone is better than Mugabe. The 2002 presidential elections will therefore be more of a protest vote than anything else.

People will not be looking at party manifestos or the calibre of the candidates. All they will be interested in is getting rid of Mugabe, hoping that their problems will go away too.

Some thought they were doing this last year when they went for the Parliamentary polls. This time it will be for real and they are likely to turn out in such large numbers that it would almost be impossible to rig the results. But until the results are announced, some observers say, it would be foolhardy to write Mugabe off.

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