The Zimbabwe Election Countdown

Ruling regime uses violence and food as weapons to defeat opposition in June 27 vote.

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The United Nations Security Council is expected to meet for an informal discussion of the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe next week, and Washington is hoping that a special envoy named by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will be able to visit the violence-wracked country as soon as possible to press the need for a free and fair runoff election on June 27, a senior Bush administration official tells U.S. News. "The sooner, the better," the U.S. official said of the forthcoming U.N. visit.

The official said that regional African countries should clearly "condemn" the Zimbabwean regime's violence against opposition party activists and its use of food aid as a political weapon. The government of President Robert Mugabe last week told nongovernmental organizations delivering food aid to stop operations. And there have been reports of officials delivering food to government backers while denying it to opposition supporters unless they surrender the identification cards they need in order to vote on June 27.

The Bush administration wants to see African nations take charge in dealing with the Zimbabwe crisis. "We believe that Africa has the lead role," the official said. Still, the official described the effectiveness of regional efforts on Zimbabwe as "a very mixed record." "Some countries have taken a very strong line.... Others have not" done so, said the official.

Hopes for pressuring Mugabe to stop the violence and allow a fair vote have centered on a regional grouping called the Southern Africa Development Community, which has endorsed a South African-led mediation effort between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition—so far to little effect.

The U.S. official said that the emphasis on what has been described as "quiet diplomacy" by South African President Thabo Mbeki reflected a "universal approach" by the South Africans "that you can solve any issue through dialogue." However, the official said that some SADC governments favor stronger diplomacy, including such options as consideration of expelling Zimbabwe from SADC, asking the U.N. Security Council to formally take up the political crisis in the country, and consideration of sanctions against ZANU-PF.

The U.S. official said that despite the political intimidation of Mugabe's opponents, Washington was not calling for a delay in the June 27 runoff but rather was pressing for more international election monitors to enter Zimbabwe. "There is fairly strong momentum toward a runoff," said the official, who added that the U.S. position would not change unless opposition leaders concluded that the election was untenable and should be put off. "If they're prepared to go forward, we're prepared to support" the election.