Opinion: Zimbabwe's power-sharing government under threat

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.

Issues outstanding include Mugabe’s refusal to swear in to office MDC treasurer Roy Bennett, currently facing what the MDC regards as trumped up terrorism charges, the appointment of provincial governors from the MDC who Mugabe originally agreed to and then reneged on, the reappointment of Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono and appointment of Johannes Tomana as attorney general.

Tsvangirai is insisting on his right to chair cabinet meetings when Mugabe is away. He also wants a motorcade similar in size — and presumably noise — to Mugabe’s. A bid by Mugabe to have ministers report to his two vice-presidents instead of to Tsvangirai was last week scuppered after lawyers pointed out this was in blatant violation of the 2008 political agreement between the two sides and constitutional provisions covering the prime minister’s powers.

South African president Jacob Zuma has proposed “parking” the outstanding issues and moving on with what has been agreed, but the MDC has pointed out the dangers posed by Zanu-PF zealots such as Tomana who is persisting with the Bennett trial despite legal embarrassment at every turn.

In reaction to the latest political stalemate, the MDC is now taking the outstanding issues back to the Southern African Development Community, the regional body that has oversight of the talks.

“But it won’t end there,” Zimbabwe Independent assistant editor Dumisani Muleya says. “Senior party (MDC) officials are behind closed doors now mulling over other options, including disengagement yet again, which might deteriorate into complete withdrawal from the government if matters come to a head.”

Senior MDC officials are livid over what Zanu-PF is doing, Muleya says, and some are beginning to seriously consider the option of pulling out despite the fact that they now enjoy the trappings of power.

“They might balk at withdrawal,” Muleya says, “but things are certainly not looking good.”

The problem arises in part from Zanu-PF’s attachment to fossilized ideological mantras. The party said in December that it noted “that the inclusive government brings the party into partnership with ideologically incompatible MDC formations from which it must extricate itself in order to retain its mantle as the only dominant political party that is truly representative and determined to safeguard the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe.”

This, critics say, clearly shows Zanu-PF is not only delusional but uninterested in seeing the transitional arrangement succeed. Now its negotiators are fulfilling that mandate of disentangling the party from the inclusive government which has so drastically limited Mugabe’s power.

This explains Mugabe's distaste for the current exercise in power-sharing. He may be mollified when the European Union in two weeks is likely to relax some of the sanctions against Zanu-PF-linked companies. But those pertaining to Mugabe himself, his family and immediate entourage are likely to remain.

Last week he relented somewhat, agreeing to appoint highly respected lawyers to head the electoral commission and human rights commission.

Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to Harare, Charles A. Ray has made it clear that the International Monetary Fund will only restore Zimbabwe’s voting rights when its arrears have been cleared and issues of macro-economic distortions attended to. These have nothing to do with U.S. sanctions, he said.

Mugabe sees the MDC’s role as lifting sanctions against him and his party while he does nothing to effect the root-and-branch democratic surgery the country so badly needs. Once again Mugabe remains the obstacle in the middle of the road that SADC was warned about at the outset. So long as he remains there progress will be glacial.