Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, on Saturday sought to reclaim the initiative in his country’s political crisis, saying he would return to his homeland in the next two days to contest a run-off election against President Robert Mugabe.
By Alec Russell in Johannesburg
His pledge ended several weeks of public equivocation within the opposition Movement for Democratic Change over whether to take part in a second round in the face of a campaign of violent intimidation of MDC activists by Mr Mugabe’s supporters.
Addressing a press conference in Pretoria, the capital of neighbouring South Africa, Mr Tsvangirai sounded a defiant note.
“I am ready, the people are ready,” he said. “I intend to return as shortly as possible and intend to begin a victory tour.”
He added, however, that his participation was conditional on the government giving full access to international observers and media for the second round. He also called on the Southern African Development Community to send peacekeepers to ensure the vote took place without intimidation and repression.
However, it appeared that Zimbabwe’s crisis was set to continue after the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, a close aide of Mr Mugabe, rejected the MDC’s conditions on Saturday.
The MDC says that Mr Tsvangirai won an outright victory in the March 29 elections but the official results, issued by the state-appointed Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, showed that he fell short of achieving the clear majority necessary to avoid a run-off.
The ZEC did not release the results until a month after the vote, fuelling accusations among Mr Mugabe’s opponents at home and abroad that the final figures had been falsified.
Against a backdrop of state persecution of MDC activists, for several weeks the MDC has publicly dithered over whether to take part but on Saturday finally decided to take up the challenge.
Mr Tsvangirai said it had been a “difficult” decision but that the people of Zimbabwe would feel betrayed if he did not take part.
He sought to throw down the gauntlet to the authorities arguing that according to the constitution the run-off should be within three weeks of the release of the results, which would mean by May 24.
“Legally this election should be no later than May 24… and that is the date we are preparing for. If Zanu-PF [the ruling party] and the ZEC hope to retain what little credibility they have left they will abide by the law and declare the presidential run-off election between today and that date,” he said.
But the authorities have indicated over the last week that they are planning to delay a second round, and Mr Tsvangirai’s conditions, while seen by analysts as reasonable, may set the stage for prolonged argument, making a run-off in two weeks impossible.
Mr Tsvangirai and his senior aides have been in neighbouring countries for several weeks in self-imposed exile, even as Zanu-PF supporters have beaten up scores of activists and driven thousands of farm workers from their homes in areas where the MDC leader made inroads into Mr Mugabe’s heartland in the first round.
The MDC says at least 25 of its supporters have been killed in the violence.