A Dangerous Clash in Zimbabwe Talks

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Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, left, and President Robert Mugabe

Power-sharing talks in Zimbabwe are on the verge of a complete breakdown, according to sources inside the negotiations, with President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai unable to agree on who should wield greater power in a unity government. Underlining how the mood between the two sides has soured, one general in Zimbabwe's army reiterated a threat to defend Mugabe's regime "even if it means going to war," adding that Tsvangirai would be arrested if talks fail. And that would not appear to be an idle threat: the opposition leader, who won more votes than Mugabe during the first presidential ballot on March 29 (he withdrew from the subsequent runoff in the face of a campaign of violence against his supporters), was briefly detained by Zimbabwean security forces last week.

The dispute centers on a proposal to create a new post of Prime Minister, to balance the executive power of the President in a national unity government aimed at fostering reconciliation. After the March 29 poll, Mugabe's security services and loyalist militia began a crackdown on the opposition which, according to Human Rights Watch, has killed 166 opposition members and injured thousands. The proposed power-sharing deal, mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, would be similar to the one agreed on between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga earlier this year after that country's disputed election sparked weeks of violence that left some 1,500 people dead.

Despite hopes that a power-sharing deal could break Zimbabwe's violent political deadlock and open the way to turning around an economy in free fall, there has been scant progress since talks began four weeks ago. A source within Zimbabwe's opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who participated in the latest round of talks in South Africa — and who spoke on condition of anonymity — said Mugabe had offered his opponent the post of Prime Minister, which he said would be a powerful position. When the opposition leader demanded to know the specific powers Mugabe would concede to the new office, Mugabe replied that the Prime Minister would be more powerful than the President in the new arrangement but offered no details. Tsvangirai responded by demanding the presidency for himself and offering the post of Prime Minister to Mugabe. At that point, the talks broke down.

"Mugabe was incensed," said the MDC source. "He accused Tsvangirai of being unreasonable ... and told the meeting that he would soon form a government with like-minded people [and] not Tsvangirai." That was an apparent reference to negotiations on power-sharing that Mugabe has been conducting with breakaway MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara, which was reported by Zimbabwe's state-run Herald newspaper last week. (Mutambara later denied that he had reached any agreement with Mugabe.) The reaction of Zimbabwe's security establishment to Tsvangirai's proposal was even more extreme than Mugabe's. A leading army general, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told TIME, "It has been always our position that we support Comrade Mugabe ... even if it means going to war. We will detain Tsvangirai if the talks break down."

Allocating the top positions isn't the only point of contention in the talks. Tsvangirai wants a unity government to be a transitional administration that would leave office after 30 months, when a new constitution would be adopted. Mugabe wants the unity government to last five years, and refuses to countenance reforms to such draconian laws as the Public Order and Security Act, which makes it an offence to "cause disaffection among Police Force or Defence Force," to "publish or communicate false statements prejudicial to the State" and to "undermine the authority of or insult the President."

Although the opening of negotiations had raised hopes for resolving the conflict in Zimbabwe, their breakdown is a sharp reminder that Mugabe and Tsvangirai have simply transferred the ongoing political contest to a new arena. "What we are witnessing is a power struggle," says political analyst Isaiah Sithole. "Mugabe is trying to cheat Tsvangirai into believing that he will be in charge. But Tsvangirai smells a rat." Chaka Bosha, a journalist and political analyst with the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, concurred with that pessimistic assessment. Bosha also warned that, in a week when Zimbabwe's inflation hit 11.2 million percent, up from 2.2 million percent in May, any delay in resolving the question of who rules Zimbabwe will only prolong the suffering of its citizens. Zimbabwe needs a deal "urgently to arrest the free-falling economy," he said. "The economy will [plunge to] unprecedented levels if these talks collapse."

With reporting from correspondents in Zimbabwe