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Opinion: Zimbabwe's power-sharing government under threat

Negotiations stall as Mugabe stiffens position and Tsvangirai calls for new elections.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, left, and President Robert Mugabe speak to the press at Zimbabwe House in Harare, Dec. 23, 2009. The two rival leaders are not making progress in getting the power-sharing government to work. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — The prospects of survival for Zimbabwe's power-sharing government are gloomy as an impasse has been reached in negotiations between President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

South African mediators left Harare this week saying no progress had been made in resolving differences between the two parties over how the unwieldly power-sharing government should function.

Tsvangirai declared that the talks were deadlocked and called for new elections to break the impasse. 

The negotiations broke down after Mugabe’s Zanu-PF stiffened its position at a meeting of its Soviet-era politburo in January.

The Politburo meeting picked up the combative posturing of the Zanu-PF national congress in December. Both meetings saw a return to the vituperative rhetoric of 2008 when Mugabe, 85 and in power for 30 years, launched a campaign of violence against Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Under pressure from South Africa and other neighboring countries, the two Zimbabwean parties, together with a smaller MDC offshoot, are now locked in a government of national unity with Tsvangirai as prime minister and Mugabe as president. But there is very little cooperation between the two sides. Mugabe insists on referring to the MDC as “the enemy” and refuses to resolve outstanding issues in disputes between them as long as Western sanctions remain in force.

There appeared to be a breakthrough late last year as the parties covered considerable ground, clearing many of the issues on the 27-item agenda. These included the appointment of supposedly independent commissions to contain corruption and regulate electoral matters and the media, and improve human rights. The parties took a break from the dialogue in December, ahead of Zanu-PF's annual congress.

However, when the talks resumed in late January things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Following British foreign secretary David Miliband’s statement that Britain would be guided by the MDC on whether to lift sanctions, Mugabe’s spokesmen went ballistic.

“The people of Zimbabwe as the victims of the MDC and Western murderous collusion now demand that Mr. Tsvangirai and his Western allies remove their evil sanctions,” Zanu-PF’s deputy secretary for information, Ephraim Masawi, demanded after the politburo meeting. “Children could then go to school,” he said, “the sick could be attended to in hospitals, people could find jobs and farmers produce goods.”

They could not, of course, do any of these things under the previous Zanu-PF government when education and health services broke down and agriculture was disrupted by farm occupations. In any case the so-called sanctions that Zanu-PF rails about have little to do with Zimbabwe's overwhelming problems.

They mostly comprise travel bans on Mugabe, his immediate family and about 120 of his closest associates. The countries imposing “sanctions” such as the U.S., European Union and Australia are the largest donors of humanitarian aid.

Guided by the angry resolutions coming out of the December party congress, Zanu-PF negotiators said they would not compromise because their hands were tied over the sanctions issue. As a result nothing further came out of the talks and much of the ground initially covered was lost.