Free elections must be the priority for Zimbabwe

A faint air of unreality hangs over the talks between Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and three Zimbabwean cabinet ministers in London today. In theory, by dealing with the country's great unresolved issue of land reform, they could prove to be the most important discussions between Britain and her former colony since the 1979 Lancaster House conference granting independence to the former Southern Rhodesia.

Alas, the current lawlessness and violence in Zimbabwe has less to do with ancestral and legitimate grievances over land than with the absolute determination of President Mugabe to win the forthcoming elections, whatever it takes. In February, Zimbabwe's voters, galvanised by an increasingly organised opposition, showed what they thought of their President by handing him an unprecedented defeat in a referendum that would, among other things, have authorised him to confiscate white-owned farmland.

This time, Mr Mugabe is leaving nothing to chance. The seizures of white farms have, for the time being, abated. Instead the ruling Zanu-PF party has unleashed its thugs against activists in the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition group, and black workers employed by white farmers. That is just political campaigning, Mugabe-style. The intimidation places the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in a near-impossible position: do nothing, and the terror will continue; retaliate and risk brutal repression by Mugabe's forces, in the name of "restoring order".

Mr Cook will tell his visitors today that an extra £36m of British funding earmarked for land reform will be available only once the occupations cease and after free elections have been held. The choice is Zimbabwe's, he says: Britain is ready to help - but not to appease. Mr Mugabe sees things in diametrically opposite terms, maintaining that Britain has a moral obligation to help, but that Zimbabwe's elections are a matter for itself alone. The harsh reality is that Mr Mugabe has nothing to gain from a farm deal now except on terms that can be presented to his supporters as a defeat for the ex-colonial power. His overriding interest is to retain power, by fair means or foul.

In such circumstances it is hard to see much good coming from the meeting. Zimbabwe's land problem must be dealt with, but now, we fear, is not the time. Our interest must be to see fair, peaceful elections, with international observers. That is the only pledge worth winning today.

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