Southern African Leaders Press Zimbabwe

(NYT) - After a marathon session to address Zimbabwe's political impasse, southern Africa's political leaders on Sunday urged the government of President Robert Mugabe to permit representatives of the opposition to be present when vote tabulations are verified, handing the opposition a substantial victory.

Zimbabwean election officials have yet to announce the winner of the presidential election held two weeks ago, spawning widespread suspicions that Mr. Mugabe was refusing to accept his own defeat. Opposition parties and independent election observers have complained that government authorities have denied their access to the command center where the final stage of vote counting is conducted.

In a statement after its all-night, 12-hour session, the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc of 14 nations, also implicitly acknowledged reports that the governing party had sponsored violent attacks on opposition supporters since the election on March 29 by urging the government to ensure that a runoff, if needed, will be held "in a secure environment."

The bloc of nations, known as S.A.D.C., offered to send election observers to monitor the vote counting process and a possible runoff.

Mr. Mugabe did not attend the summit meeting, and his representatives left the session without making any public comments.

Kabinga Pande, Zambia's minister of foreign affairs, said Sunday morning, after the heads of state and ministers had adjourned at 5 a.m., that the main opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, who made his case to the leaders on Saturday night, should be pleased with the outcome of the meeting "because we've taken care of all his concerns."

And, indeed, when the No. 2 man in Mr. Tsvangirai's party, Tendai Biti, took questions after Mr. Pande finished speaking, he praised the African leaders. "This is a major improvement and S.A.D.C. has acquitted itself relatively well," he said.

But Mr. Biti did not answer a question about whether Mr. Tsvangirai would participate in a runoff if recommendations from the summit meeting were carried out. Instead he reiterated the party's position. "We won this election without need of a runoff and that position has not changed," he said.

But it will be difficult for Mr. Tsvangirai to justify a boycott at this point.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Tsvangirai said his goal from the meeting was to win guarantees that the vote counting would be fairly conducted and the results were credible, and that a runoff, if needed, would be closely monitored by outsiders to ensure it took place free of intimidation, harassment and violence against his supporters.

"I know we can win an election and humiliate Mugabe in a second round of voting," Mr. Tsvangirai said then.

Results were posted for legislative elections held on the same day as the presidential vote, and Mr. Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, lost its majority in Parliament. Over the past week the governing party has demanded recounts involving an increasing number of seats.

On Sunday, a state-owned newspaper, The Sunday Mail, reported that votes for 23 seats would be recounted Saturday, raising the possibility that the opposition's victory could be reversed, Reuters reported.

Zimbabwe's people are already suffering from hyperinflation of more than 100,000 percent. Essentials like bread and soap have all but disappeared from many shops, according to news reports.

The government has banned political rallies, while the opposition called for a general strike.

Mr. Mugabe's decision not to attend the meeting in Lusaka was apparently a snub to Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, who leads the regional bloc and once compared Zimbabwe to a sinking ship.

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