In Zimbabwe, Mugabe Clings On, But His Power Is Waning

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai protest outside a meeting of the Southern African Development Community in Sandton, South Africa

What with the world economy in the throes of a precipitous slowdown and even Africa's crisis agenda now dominated by the upheavals in eastern Congo and the exploits of Somalia's pirates, it's easy to forget all about Zimbabwe — which is exactly what President Robert Mugabe may be hoping will happen. Mugabe and his inner circle have doggedly fought to maintain absolute control over Zimbabwe, despite having agreed on Sept. 15 to share power with the opposition, in order to resolve the political crisis resulting from the ruling party's refusal to accept the results of the March 28 elections, in which it finished second. And Mugabe appeared to move closer to getting his way when Zimbabwe's Southern African neighbors two weeks ago chose not to pressure the 84-year-old President over his intransigence, but instead urged the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to accept a greatly diluted share of government. Still, as limited as its leverage may be, the opposition has one key factor working in its favor: the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy and the resulting humanitarian crisis, which Mugabe's ruling party will be unable to address without international help.

Zimbabwe's neighbors, grouped as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), were called in to mediate after Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party and the MDC failed to agree on how to allocate the 31 Cabinet posts in a prospective unity government. The ruling party insists on retaining control over the police, army and intelligence apparatuses, which have been the bedrock of its control. But the MDC expected to be given authority over the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the police force, and it warned last Friday that it would stay out of any new government in which it were offered less than an equal share of power, which was the principle of the Sept. 15 agreement. But at a summit held Nov. 9 in South Africa, SADC leaders recommended that the MDC and Zanu-PF should share control of Home Affairs — a proposal that would keep the balance of power tilted firmly to Mugabe's advantage and would effectively make the opposition the junior partner in a unity government. (See pictures of political tension in Zimbabwe.)

Zanu-PF would be quite happy to govern without the participation of an opposition party against which it has repeatedly unleashed systemic violence, except for the fact that only with the MDC on board will Zimbabwe be able to attract the international aid and investment desperately needed to avoid social and economic collapse. Mugabe's party is widely seen internationally as having stolen the election, and international donors and investors are unlikely to do anything that might be seen as propping up his regime. And the social and economic pressure on Mugabe is clearly mounting. (See pictures of Robert Mugabe's reign.)

Unemployment is upwards of 80%, and inflation is pushing 231 million percent. Cholera outbreaks have been reported in cities, and the failure to plant crops will leave 5.1 million Zimbabweans needing food aid by January. The World Food Programme (WFP) was recently forced to shrink the food ration made available to each needy person because of its lack of funding from international donors and its need to stretch its existing resources to expand the reach of its feeding program from 2 million to 4 million people. (The WFP has warned that it will run out of money by January unless more donor funds are forthcoming.) Across the country, schools are shuttered for lack of teachers and students able to pay, and in hospitals patients are dying because they can't withdraw money from banks fast enough to pay for simple procedures, according to news reports.

The fact that Zanu-PF needs the MDC's support to stay in power creates a dilemma for the opposition, which risks diluting its own popular legitimacy by joining a government over whose decisions it would have limited influence. "[The MDC has] the choice between the devil and the dark sea," says Elinor Sisulu, a Zimbabwean analyst and human rights activist. "Already people are saying that Zimbabwe is in this mess because these politicians are bickering over a Cabinet post."

Despite Mugabe's threat to walk away from talks and form a government without the MDC, sources inside both the opposition and the ruling party have told TIME that the octogenarian strongman will soon have to yield to some opposition demands. "We believe that eventually a government will be formed because we can't continue without one," a top official of the ruling party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME. "Obviously it will include our colleagues in MDC. We are just waiting for them to make up their minds so that we can kick-start the process of national healing."

Harare-based political analyst John Makumbe told TIME that the MDC still hopes to force more concessions out of Zanu-PF as the price for joining a government. Unless a government that includes the MDC can be formed in the next few months, most experts agree, Zimbabwe's future looks dire. Without the MDC, "Mugabe won't be able to change anything to avoid disaster," says Sisulu. "He will have to keep ruling through violence." And while he has proved all too willing to unleash his security forces on opposition supporters, at some point the economic collapse could begin to eat into the loyalty of rank-and-file soldiers and policemen.

The growing social and economic crisis, which tends to spill over Zimbabwe's borders, will also keep the SADC focused on Zimbabwe's political stalemate and potentially weaken Mugabe's legitimacy among his peers. "I think he cares about that," says Makumbe. "And if he doesn't care, some of his members in Zanu-PF care, because they can see the suffering of the people, and their own businesses are going to the dogs. They don't see a future for this country or themselves without the MDC."

With reporting by Simba Rushwaya / Harare

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