A Power Failure in Zimbabwe's Talks

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Left to Right: Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters ; Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, and Morgan Tsvangirai

Power-sharing negotiations between Robert Mugabe's government and Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have hit their first stumbling block: Weeklong talks were adjourned after the MDC rejected as "insulting" the government's offer to make opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai one of three vice presidents. (Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in the first round of presidential polling on March 29; he withdrew from the runoff race in the face of a campaign of violence against opposition supporters by security forces and militias loyal to Mugabe.) An MDC source at the talks in Pretoria, South Africa, told Agence France-Presse that the government's proposal showed a "complete lack of sincerity and the need to really address the issues and problems Zimbabwe is facing." Zimbabwe already has two vice presidents, both high-ranking members of Mugabe's Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) Party, and both are confined to largely ceremonial duties. "[The talks are] deadlocked, according to the MDC guys," said Chris Maroleng, Zimbabwe expert at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria. "The position they were offered is untenable for them."

Breakdowns are to be expected in any negotiations, and Zimbabwe's regime had shown little interest in ceding power as it unleashed a wave of violence in the wake of the March 29 poll. The key question now is whether Mugabe is seriously pursuing an agreement with the opposition or merely going through the motions of talking in order to kill off any momentum for sanctions and other forms of international pressure. Most analysts believe that Zanu-PF is serious — or at least, seriously feeling the heat. "There is a great deal of international pressure on them," said Maroleng. "They're feeling it. And that immense pressure does not give them much room to maneuver. They're engaged."

Aubrey Matshiqi of the Johannesburg-based Center for Policy Studies said Zanu-PF was using the talks to buy time, for two reasons: to renew its rural support base inside Zimbabwe, which has been eroded by the MDC, and to manage the succession of 84-year-old Mugabe. "Zanu needs this process of negotiation for its own reasons," said Matshiqi.

Mugabe has long made a virtue out of his vilification in the West, casting himself as the champion of a fight against neo-imperialism. But his regime's blatant abuse of power has drawn rare criticism from fellow African leaders — a fact that appears to have rattled the man who has ruled Zimbabwe since overthrowing the racist white Rhodesian government in 1980. At his inauguration speech last month, Mugabe unexpectedly promised talks with the opposition on sharing power. Last week, Mugabe met Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, and agreed to begin talks mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Those discussions began last week in Pretoria, with some suggesting that an agreement was possible within two weeks.

This week's setback simply reflects how unrealistic that prediction was, given the imbalance in power between the two sides. While the desire to break out of international isolation in order to save his collapsing economy has brought Mugabe to the table, inside Zimbabwe, he and his security forces still hold all the cards. "I'd be surprised if we have an agreement before the end of the year," said Maroleng. Matshiqi added that he expected talks to take "one to two years." Still, compared with a few weeks ago, the situation remains hopeful. "The international pressure on Zanu must continue, and continue to focus minds around the need for negotiations," said Maroleng. "Because it's working." When was the last time you could say that about anything in Zimbabwe?