HARARE, April 12 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s election stalemate is not a crisis and its electoral commission must be given time to release the results of a presidential poll held two weeks ago, South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Saturday.
Mbeki held an hour-long meeting with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, shortly before regional leaders meet in Zambia to discuss the deadlock resulting from elections on March 29. The Harare talks were the first since the vote between Mugabe and the leader of Zimbabwe’s most powerful neighbour, who has been mediating between Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since last year.
The MDC won a parliamentary election also held on March 29 and claims victory in the presidential poll. It has gone to court to try to force the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to release the results, 14 days after the vote took place.
“I wouldn’t describe that as a crisis. It’s a normal electoral process in Zimbabwe. We have to wait for ZEC to release (the results),” Mbeki told reporters after the meeting.
Mugabe will not attend Saturday’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Lusaka, called by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa to help end the impasse over Zimbabwe’s disputed elections and prevent the crisis from turning violent.
Mugabe, aged 84 and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, said he was not snubbing the summit, which three government ministers will attend.
“He (Mbeki) is going to the summit, I’m not ... We’re very good friends, very good brothers. But sometimes we also have other business that holds us back,” Mugabe told reporters.
He dismissed comments by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown that the world was losing patience with him, saying: “If Brown is the world, sure, he will lose patience. I know Brown as a little tiny dot on this planet.”
There were no immediate details of the meeting between Mugabe and Mbeki but a senior Zimbabwean official said the South African leader had asked for a briefing on political developments following the elections.
Mbeki met MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Thursday to discuss the crisis, but no details of their talks were revealed.
Zambia’s Foreign Minister Kabinga Pande called ahead of the SADC meeting for the election results to be released.
“Zambia’s position is that the election results must be released and thereafter it will be decided what next,” he told Reuters in Lusaka.
Tsvangirai has been invited to Lusaka to explain his stance.
“No decision can be made without hearing both sides since there is a stalemate,” Pande said.
MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti said the party will tell the summit to stand up to Mugabe, still seen as a liberation-era hero by many Africans. “We’ll be telling the leaders that they must stand up against the dictator. They must be strong and stand up against dictatorship,” Biti said.
The 14-member SADC has long been seen as toothless in its response to Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems.
Last year it delegated Mbeki to oversee negotiations between ZANU-PF and the MDC to try to ensure a fair and free election, but the talks failed, prompting criticism of SADC and of Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
The summit appeared to be the best chance to dissuade Mugabe from launching another crackdown on the opposition. Dozens of MDC activists and supporters were beaten by police last year in an abortive anti-government protest in the capital Harare.
Zimbabwean police have banned political rallies, including one planned by the MDC for Sunday, while the opposition has called for an indefinite general strike to begin on Tuesday. Both parties accuse the other of preparing for violence.
An estimated one-quarter of the population has fled Zimbabwe, once described as southern Africa’s breadbasket, to escape hyper-inflation of more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and 80 percent unemployment.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Friday that Zimbabwe “now stands on the brink”.
“SADC must insist that a peaceful and just solution be found to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe,” he said.