Johannesburg — ZIMBABWE's ruling Zanu (PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are engaged in 11th-hour talks - mediated by President Thabo Mbeki - to salvage a solution to the political stalemate, which may include cancelling a proposed presidential run-off election due later this month.
Sources said Mbeki was continuing to play a central role in trying to reconcile the sides despite MDC criticism of the way he has handled the crisis.
Negotiators from both parties have told Business Day they fear the planned June 27 run-off may prove too "dicey" for them.
One option being discussed is a "Kenya-style" government of national unity, with President Robert Mugabe remaining head of state and opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai becoming prime minister.
Mugabe fears if he loses, even after using the military and violence, he would then be at the mercy of Tsvangirai and his group. Mugabe and his military advisers in the Joint Operations Command, which brings together the army, police and intelligence chiefs fear being prosecuted, and want to put up a fight before the runoff.
But, they are also aware that if they lose they would be in serious trouble over human rights abuses and other excesses.
For his part, Tsvangirai fears that he could lose the election, despite already having "one foot in". He did not win a sufficient majority in the March 29 presidential elections and also fears that this might be his last chance to become president.
Continued repression by the Mugabe government, escalating violence, as well as bureaucratic and administrative methods being used to block his election bid are frustrating Tsvangirai. It is understood he is amenable to talks and wants to meet Mugabe to discuss this.
While he initially wanted a winner-takes-all approach, Tsvangirai's tone has changed and he is becoming increasingly conciliatory, indicating a new desire for a negotiated settlement rather than the run-off.
Sources say representatives of the two parties met in Pretoria on May 30 and 31 and will do so again this week.
Zanu (PF) was represented by Patrick Chinamasa and Nicholas Goche at the talks chaired by Local Government Minister Sydney Mufamadi, while Tsvangirai's MDC faction sent Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma. The MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara was represented by Welshman Ncube and Priscillah Misihairabwi.
Sources said Mufamadi, assisted by director-general in the Presidency Rev Frank Chikane and Mbeki's legal adviser Mojanku Gumbi, met the three parties separately to discuss the run-off and political violence.
Addressing his party MPs on the day Zanu (PF) and MDC representatives were in talks, Tsvangirai said: "Instead of focusing on what divides us, we must now try to heal our nation. This means that we can even talk about restoring Zanu (PF)."
"In the spirit of moving the country forward, let us seek out those peaceful members of Zanu (PF) whose eyes are open to the disastrous state of our nation. Let us listen to their views. Let us invite them where we have policy agreements," the MDC leader said.
Mugabe's election agent Emmerson Mnangagwa recently said that working together with the MDC was "unavoidable". This is partly because Zanu (PF) has lost control of parliament and also because Mugabe is open to the idea of aborting the run-off and taking part in talks as long as he is not left out of any new arrangement.
Tsvangirai said he is not opposed to a government of national unity as long as Mugabe is not involved. This presents a challenge for Mbeki and anyone else trying to broker a deal. Sources said that Tsvangirai had also instructed his negotiating team not to start dialogue unless Mbeki could first guarantee his impartiality and promise to convince Mugabe to have face-to-face talks with him (Tsvangirai) - a demand which has compounded the already complex negotiations.
Mnangagwa has said that there are plans to create the position of prime minister, which is said to be earmarked for Tsvangirai if a negotiated settlement is found. It is similar to the Kenyan model brokered by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan earlier this year after a disputed election.