Defying expectations of a breakdown in talks, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai concluded a power-sharing agreement late Thursday night, raising hopes that the country may be moving to end its long political nightmare. "We have a deal," opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Tsvangirai told reporters as he emerged from a meeting with Mugabe and South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, who has been mediating the talks. The news was certainly unexpected: Even late Thursday afternoon, Mugabe had been quoted as saying the two sides were far from agreeing on how to share power. They had been talking since a controversial June 27 runoff election in which Mugabe ran unopposed and claimed victory after Tsvangirai, who polled more votes than did the President in the first round at the end of March, withdrew in the face of a sustained campaign of violence against his supporters.
The talks had revolved around a proposal for Mugabe to remain President while appointing Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, but they had been deadlocked over which position would be more powerful. (Tsvangirai's MDC also controls the legislature, having beaten Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party in the parliamentary vote in March.) It was not immediately clear what led to the breakthrough, nor how the balance of power between Mugabe and Tsvangirai will be resolved. Details of the deal are to be released Monday at a formal signing ceremony.
Neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai is comfortable granting executive power to the other: the opposition leader demanded fresh elections, which he would be confident of winning if the poll were free and fair, while Mugabe threatened to form a Cabinet without the opposition if Tsvangirai rejected his terms. Shortly before the deal was announced, one source close to the talks had said that Mbeki was on the verge of quitting his mediation role on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in frustration. "President Mbeki was fuming, threatening the Zimbabwean leaders that SADC will not be responsible if there is bloodshed in their country if they fail to reach an agreement," said the source. "He was literally angry at the two leaders." That may have done the trick, since the support of Zimbabwe's neighbors is crucial to both men: if the SADC were to turn its back on Zimbabwe, Mugabe would be unable to govern with any stability, and neither would Tsvangirai have the leverage to oust him.
According to sources at the meeting, Mbeki, who has been in Harare since Monday in a last-ditch effort to find a compromise, offered a proposal under which Tsvangirai would serve as Prime Minister, chairing a council of ministers charged with formulating government policy. Under the proposal, Mugabe would remain as chairman of the Cabinet, a separate entity, which would review the work of the council of ministers.
When the deal is finally signed, Mugabe will likely remain President with two deputies from his Zanu-PF Party, but with reduced powers, and Tsvangirai will become Prime Minister with two deputies, one from his own faction of the MDC and the other being Arthur Mutambara, leader of a rival faction of the opposition party.
"There is a proposal to have a council of state which would exercise executive powers and decisions. It will be comprised of the President, his two Vice Presidents, the Prime Minister and his two deputies. This would effectively block Mugabe from taking unilateral decisions," said an MDC spokesperson.
While Tsvangirai accepted the proposal, sources claimed that Mugabe had initially rejected it, saying it would render him largely ceremonial and insisting that Tsvangirai should instead be his deputy. A Zanu-PF minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME earlier that Mugabe was not comfortable with Tsvangirai heading the government. He said, "The deal on the table is more of a fantasy. They want Tsvangirai to chair and appoint Cabinet. Those are the functions of the President in accordance to the constitution of Zimbabwe. Comrade Mugabe is refusing to sign that document."
If indeed the octogenarian leader of 28 years has had a change of heart, the resulting breakthrough could open the possibility of foreign aid flowing into the country, whose shattered economy has lately seen inflation top 2 million percent. But the international community, like many Zimbabweans, may wait to see whether the new deal actually ends the political violence that has become a trademark of Mugabe's regime.
With reporting by correspondents inside Zimbabwe