Zimbabwe's civic society organisations say they are being sidelined from negotiations in Pretoria, South Africa, between the divided opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the ZANU-PF government.
The talks led by South African president Thabo Mbeki, under the auspices of Southern African Development Community (SADC), hope to establish common ground between the two parties ahead of Zimbabwe's parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for next year.
Zimbabwe is suffering the world's highest inflation rate of more than 3,700 percent, only one in five people have jobs and the UN has reported that more than a third of the population would require food aid by early next year.
The Save Zimbabwe Campaign (SZC), an umbrella organisation representing more than 30 civic organisations - including labour, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious bodies, women's groups and students - is dismayed that it has been left out in the cold and said Zimbabwe's crisis could only be resolved by all-inclusive dialogue.
Useni Sibanda, SZC's spokesman, told IRIN that the formation of SZC in May 2006 provided a platform for civic society, and its members had "voiced serious concern about the fact that the present dialogue process had not accorded them formal recognition and has so far excluded them."
"Member organisations pointed out that they need to ensure that the voices of their stakeholders are heard and taken into account at all times during such crucial negotiations if there is to be national consensus on the outcome," Sibanda said.
"There is overwhelming agreement that civil society needs to be included as an integral partner in the negotiations. The Save Zimbabwe Campaign is designed to ensure that the process is consultative, all-inclusive and representative of the concerns of all Zimbabweans."
Other civic groups demanding a role in the talks were the Centre for Peace Initiatives in Africa, the Ecumenical Peace Initiative, the Law Society of Zimbabwe and the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO).
The civic organisations have set up a committee, chaired by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), an NGO that monitors elections, which has been delegated to secure an urgent meeting with Mbeki to present their concerns.
"The committee will report to civil society from time to time. Most organisations that sent representatives to the meeting stressed that while they agreed to participate in the dialogue process, they would not stop other programmes ... [from opening] up democratic space, as the government of Zimbabwe was not showing any sign of willingness to open up democratic space in Zimbabwe," the organisations said in a joint statement to a Zimbabwean newspaper, The Financial Gazette.
The first face-to-face discussions between ZANU-PF and the MDC began on 17 June in Pretoria. The ruling party was represented by justice minister Patrick Chinamasa and labour minister Nicholas Goche, while the MDC was represented by Welshman Ncube, secretary-general of the pro-senate faction, and Tendai Biti, from the anti-senate faction, led by the MDC's founding president, Morgan Tsvangirai.
The meeting was chaired by South Africa's local government minister, Sydney Mufamadi, assisted by deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad and Frank Chikane, director-general of the South African presidency.
Little hope invested in the talks
The MDC factions made a joint proposal that the elections be presided over by an independent body accountable to parliament. However, Zimbabwe's ministry of justice has already gazetted a proposed constitutional amendment that would result in all key election officials being appointed by President Robert Mugabe.
ZANU-PF enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament and can amend the constitution without the support of opposition parliamentarians.
Tsvangirai told IRIN that the government's constitutional amendments were "pre-emptive and contemptuous of the dialogue, as the issue of a new constitution and its contents are some of the things that will clearly be covered in the SADC negotiations."
He said the Mbeki-led initiative was not the only option being considered by the opposition movement. "Obviously, we are not putting all our eggs in one basket, although we hope that the Mbeki mediation will achieve the desired result. We have other plans to turn to, should that [Mbeki mediation] fail, but I will not divulge that for strategic reasons."
In the clearest sign of the opposition's pessimism about the outcome of the Pretoria talks, both MDC opposition leaders are to embark on tour of African and European countries to garner support.
Although the South African government has refused to confirm or deny whether any meetings are taking place, the state-sponsored Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald, said in its 21 June edition that the MDC were acting in bad faith at the Pretoria meeting because they were "launching an anti-Zimbabwe campaign in Britain, led by [MDC] faction leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Prof Arthur Mutambara."
"It is understood the two MDC faction leaders will be in London until after the handover of power to Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr [Gordon] Brown by outgoing Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair on June 27," the newspaper said.
The urgency of making some sort of headway was illustrated after reports last week of the arrest of alleged coup plotters intent on ousting Mugabe, who has been in power since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980, and replacing him with rural housing minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The six alleged coup plotters have appeared in court three times since their arrest earlier this month, and Mnangagwa has dismissed attempts to link him to the plot as "just stupid".
Some political analysts have suggested that the alleged coup plot was a smokescreen by Mugabe to provide an excuse for crushing those within ZANU-PF who are opposing his bid to stand again in next year's elections.
Information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu did not want to discuss the coup allegations. "The issue is now before the courts, but there could be more arrests. There is no need to comment, our security forces are on top of the situation."