Announcement leaves door open

HARARE - Morgan Tsvangirai has gambled his political career by pulling out of an election run-off and he must now count on regional action as well as sympathy to have a hope of unseating President Robert Mugabe.

HARARE - Morgan Tsvangirai has gambled his political career by pulling out of an election run-off and he must now count on regional action as well as sympathy to have a hope of unseating President Robert Mugabe.

In a free election, the opposition leader would have been well placed to win next Friday's vote after beating Mugabe in the first round, but he announced on Sunday that political violence made a fair ballot impossible.

The announcement was hedged though - with a plea to Africa and the world to intervene in the crisis. He also spoke of the need to work on a transition of power away from Mugabe, suggesting a readiness for negotiations.

"It is a bold statement, but he does appear to be leaving his options open. This sounds like a provisional pull-out," said Brian Raftopolous, a political analyst with the Zimbabwe Institute.

Tsvangirai, 56, a fiery former trade unionist, always knew the run-off would be difficult and only reluctantly agreed to take part. His MDC said he won the outright majority needed on March 29 to avoid a second round of voting, but agreed to go along to avoid granting automatic victory to Mugabe, 84.

At first sight, giving up now would have the same result.

But the picture has changed.

African countries have joined Mugabe's Western critics in voicing anger at poll violence. The MDC says 86 supporters have been killed. Not long ago, regional states sat silent and gave tacit backing to Mugabe, seen by many as a hero of the struggle for independence.

The government blames Tsvangirai's followers for the violence, but the region has certainly not taken up that line.

In fact, SADC show growing impatience with Mugabe and fear total meltdown in Zimbabwe. The crisis has driven millions of Zimbabweans into their countries, straining economies and creating tensions even in powerhouse South Africa - where xenophobic violence exploded last month.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who is also SADC chairman, showed understanding for Tsvangirai after the withdrawal.

"Elections held in such an environment will not only be undemocratic but will also bring embarrassment to the region and the entire continent."

But Tsvangirai will need action as well as words from regional leaders if his gamble is not to backfire.

Most important of all will be South Africa's role. President Thabo Mbeki has never shown much fondness for Tsvangirai, while the MDC leader has openly criticised Mbeki's role as mediator in the crisis.

Tsvangirai has a better relationship with the increasingly influential ANC president Jacob Zuma, who shares his humble roots. Tsvangirai is the self-taught son of a bricklayer.

By withdrawing, he could also be moving towards a plan Mbeki has been said to favour - calling off the election to allow a national unity government.

Mbeki was quick to say that South Africa would try to persuade Mugabe and Tsvangirai to meet to discuss the crisis.

".that most certainly is what we would try to encourage," Mbeki said after Tsvangirai's announcement.

Until now, prospects for such talks appeared limited.

Neither side trusted the other to head an interim administration. Both believed they could win the vote - by whatever means. Now regional pressure could make a difference in getting Mugabe to the table. He is undoubtedly in a weaker position than before the March 29 elections, when his party also lost its parliamentary majority. Without a contested run-off, even a flawed one, his legitimacy could be more uncertain.

Susan Booysen, a political analyst at Wits university, said: "With the MDC withdrawing, I think it is back to negotiations."

Such negotiations could test Tsvangirai to the full. His party has suffered deep internal divisions in the past - some over questions of his judgment and style - although differences have been patched up for now.

He is the only person who has come close to ending Mugabe's rule. But Zanu-PF and the generals fighting behind Mugabe are known for their political nous as well as a readiness to use whatever means necessary to avoid losing their 28-year rule. - Reuters