Harare — President Robert Mugabe is to be sworn-in for another six-year term on Sunday. State radio earlier announced the inauguration would take place at State House on Saturday, but government officials later confirmed the date had been switched to Sunday.
No reason was given, but sources and diplomats said the change of date might be to allow leaders from friendly nations the opportunity to attend the ceremony, which will be the start of Mugabe's 5th term in office. His current term officially ends on March 30.
Mugabe's widely disputed victory, Wednesday, in the presidential election has been called into question by the main opposition challenger, and loser, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. Tsvangirai says the government rigged the poll and disenfranchised thousand of opposition supporters.
But the authorities have maintained that the conduct of the presidential election was "exemplary, free and fair" and that voters had vindicated Mugabe's policies, including his controversial land reform programme. The Zimbabwean leader has been in power for 22 years, since his country gained independence from Britain in 1980.
With so much criticism from the international community, South Africa in particular has come under pressure to intervene and is reported to be proposing to Mugabe a national unity government that would include Tsvangirai and members of his MDC. But few believe either side is ready to enter such a deal.
Most observers, sent from and on behalf of Africa, broadly endorsed the poll, announcing that the ballot was legitimate, if not free and fair. The Organisation of African Unity and Namibia went further and declared that the poll "free and fair".
An election observer group from the parliamentary forum of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and, significantly, the Commonwealth, slammed the poll, saying it did not reflect the will of the people. They cited intimidation and violence before and during the vote. Earlier, the Norwegian observer mission had published a scathing report.
A Japanese government observer team concluded that there were problems with the poll and that Mugabe was being returned to office on the basis of "an unfair poll". "The Japanese Election Observer Mission has to say with regret that it is compelled to conclude that there was a deviation from fairness in the Zimbabwe 2002 presidential elections."
On Friday, Tokyo announced that its economic aid to Zimbabwe, which has been frozen since 1999, would remain on hold. A foreign ministry statement announced that "there are no prospects at all that Japan will resume its economic assistance to Zimbabwe. Japan will continue to observe the domestic situation in Zimbabwe and consider what actions to take upon coordination with the international community."
The United Nations' secretary-general Kofi Annan expressed his concern about the situation in Zimbabwe and appealed for calm and reconciliation.
The United States, Britain, New Zealand, and a host of other Western nations, denounced the outcome of the election, saying the process was deeply flawed, leading to speculation that additional sanctions could be in store for Mugabe and his inner circle.
The European Union and the US have already imposed targeted sanctions and are threatening more.
A number of Commonwealth countries, led by Britain - the former colonial power - tried and failed to have Zimbabwe suspended from the organization.
But a three-nation task force, made up of South Africa, Nigeria and Australia, was mandated by the Commonwealth, at the heads of government meeting in Coolum, near Brisbane, in early March, to monitor the elections in Zimbabwe and report back to the secretary-general, Don McKinnon.
Herein lies the rub.
South African and Nigerian government observer missions to Zimbabwe reported that the poll was "legitimate". The Commonwealth observers' report came to quite a different conclusion, and found that the will of the Zimbabwean people had not been respected.
Australia said it would withhold judgement until the prime minister, John Howard, had met his Nigerian and South African counterparts, Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, for a scheduled Commonwealth troika task force meeting in London on Tuesday, to decide whether the Commonwealth should take action against Zimbabwe.
The New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, warned that the organization risked being ridiculed if it failed to take firm action against Zimbabwe. She urged Australia not to bow to African pressure and overlook election abuses. "I think there is only one credible decision that can be taken. I think the Commonwealth should suspend Zimbabwe," Clark told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
"If the Commonwealth decides that really there is no problem, I think that does pose considerable problems for the future of the organization, because, having seen the principles applied in other situation, we're left wondering what is special about Zimbabwe," Clark told the BBC, Thursday.
Clark referred back to Commonwealth decisions to suspend Pakistan in 1999, and Fiji in 2000, after elected governments were ousted in coups. "I think it is the inconsistency that's going to raise considerable difficulties." said Clark.
This deepening controversy over the poll leaves President Mugabe increasingly isolated internationally, with the threat of 'pariah nation' status hovering over Zimbabwe. He has not spoken publicly since his last election rally in Bindura on Friday 8 March.
However, Mugabe maintains some backing from African leaders. Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi and the Tanzanian leader, Benjamin Mkapa have both congratulated Mugabe for his election victory.
State television has shown the 78-year old guerrilla leader-turned-president receiving diplomats and other foreign dignitaries at Zimbabwe House in the capital, who lined up to say "well done".
The most important of these, so far, has been the South African deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who was reportedly sent as Mbeki's special envoy to Mugabe on a one-day visit to Harare on Thursday.
"I think those who have observed have commented already. They are saying it went very well. The South African observer team has said the elections were legitimate. We sent them specifically to observe for us and they have reported. We can't have a different view... It emphasizes one thing, that we are practising democracy," Zuma told state television.
"The Zimbabwean people came out in big numbers. In any election, it is the manner in which people come out to vote that determines whether people had expressed their will freely, to choose whatever they want to choose, whether it's the leader of the party," he concluded.
After meeting with Mugabe, Zuma again spoke to selected journalists, repeating some of his earlier remarks. "I believe that the numbers of the Zimbabweans who came out to vote, who were not stopped - and everyone agrees that the Zimbabweans came in big numbers, and they voted and they've got to respect that."
Zuma laughingly shrugged off a question about the Zimbabwe opposition rejecting the election result. "It is common to any opposition, my brother, everywhere people say something went wrong. I wouldn't want to analyse what they are saying," said Zuma told a reporter, with a loud guffaw.
Pretoria under pressure
South Africa is in a difficult position.
As the champion of Africa's regeneration, and one of the main architects of Nepad (the New Partnership for Africa's Development), Mbeki is under pressure from his allies in the West to put turn up the heat on Mugabe. The South African leader has been criticized at home and abroad for what some are calling his 'softly, softly' approach to the Zimbabwean crisis.
The situation in Zimbabwe risks destabilizing southern Africa and, say analysts, is likely to have an impact on investor confidence not only in the regional giant, South Africa, but possibly elsewhere in the continent.
Mbeki would be loath to let his painstakingly nurtured African initiative fail because of Zimbabwe; but observers conclude that neither could he afford to have the leader of his northern neighbour declared "illegimate".
It has been reported that the South Africans are working behind the scenes to try to broker a deal between the rival Zimbabweans, and encourage Mugabe to consider a national unity government that would include Tsvangirai and members of his MDC.
Zimbabwean political analysts predict this initiative will fail, but acknowledge that Mbeki had to be seen to be taking action. They say Mugabe is not inclined to share power and, since Tsvangirai has declared his re-election an illegitimate sham, the opposition is unlikely to change that stance by joining any administration led by Mugabe.
While the politicians talk, the majority of Zimbabweans are concerned about other priorities: the collapsed economy and the search for dwindling supplies of the staple maize mail, cooking oil, sugar, milk and other essential commodities.