In Zimbabwe, Tsvangirai Gambles on a Boycott

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Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP / Getty

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwean Prime Minister

The decision by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to suspend participation in Zimbabwe's unity government with President Robert Mugabe simply confirms what has been obvious for some time: the power-sharing deal intended to bring an end to the country's crippling political crisis is on life support, if not already dead.

Tsvangirai's move on Oct. 16 was prompted by the re-arrest of a prominent member of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which continues to suffer harassment despite the power-sharing agreement. Tsvangirai said it was plain that Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU-PF), had no intention of relinquishing control and forming a functioning government. "It is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner," Tsvangirai said in Harare. "We have papered over the cracks and have sought to persuade the whole world in the last eight months that everything is working. Now is time for us to assert and take our position as the dominant party in Zimbabwe. We are guided by the fact that we are the trustees of the people's mandate and therefore the only one with the mandate to remain in government."

This would be logical, and wise, in a democracy. And sticking to principles is also important, as Tsvangirai says, because fighting dirty usually ensures that one dictator will merely be replaced by another. But this is Zimbabwe, where a ruthless authoritarian government has driven the country into financial ruin and suppressed its political opponents through a campaign of violence and terror. Playing by the rules when your opponent does not can seem hopelessly naive.

This is Tsvangirai's dilemma, the same dilemma facing anyone attempting to engage with dictators around the world. The task Tsvangirai has set for himself — easing out the 85-year-old tyrant without resorting to bad behavior himself — is far harder than Mugabe's goal of staying in power by whatever means necessary. Because of this, Tsvangirai can often seem like he is stumbling in comparison. For example, when he says that popular support equals political dominance, he sounds like he's not facing up to reality — talking about the way things should be in Zimbabwe rather than what they are. Power in the country comes from guns and soldiers, as Mugabe demonstrated when he unleashed his security forces on MDC supporters after his party lost the March 2008 general election, killing scores. (Tsvangirai responded to the violence by first pulling out of the runoff election, and then by accepting in February a junior role in a power-sharing government.)

To boycott the unity government now calls into question Tsvangirai's decision to enter into the arrangement in the first place. Since the deal was signed, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have spared no effort to sabotage it. The party has stymied the formation of a government by introducing endless procedural objections and by simply not turning up to meetings. Growing MDC impatience finally boiled over on Oct. 15 with the re-arrest of Roy Bennett, the party's treasurer and a white farmer, on charges of possessing weapons with the intention to commit sabotage, banditry and insurgency. But even here, Tsvangirai's actions have raised eyebrows. His decision to suspend participation in the government over Bennett's detention may have seemed robustly principled on Friday, but a day later, it appeared to be somewhat premature when Bennett was granted bail.

Most significant, for all of his protestations about the other side's lack of integrity and his vows to govern alone, Tsvangirai has, in the end, given Mugabe exactly what he wants — sole power over the government again. As this has been Mugabe's aim all along, Tsvangirai's move is undeniably self-defeating. Karin Alexander, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Democracy in Africa in Pretoria, says the MDC is giving Mugabe the opportunity to cast it as the spoiler of the peace deal. She adds, however, that the move might be seen as a tactic to impel Zimbabwe's neighbors to demand that ZANU-PF finally respect the terms of the power-sharing deal. Tsvangirai has set up meetings this week with the leaders of Mozambique and Congo to urge them to put pressure on Mugabe. "The effectiveness of the decision to enter into a 'symbolic' boycott will be determined by the strategies, if any, that the MDC has put in place to leverage real change from this public expression of dissatisfaction," Alexander says.

Even if the MDC does have a strategy in place, it may have drawn itself into a corner. "This is a period of confusion. There is too much heat emanating from the frustration the MDC has gone through," says Tendai Nyamutatanga, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "But what will happen if ZANU-PF sticks to its guns? The MDC might be doomed." Ominously, when asked to comment on the MDC's move, Mugabe's party could not have appeared less concerned. Initially, ZANU-PF claimed to not have heard about it. Then party leaders said they didn't care. Mugabe spokesman George Charamba told the Sunday Mail in Harare that rather than worrying about contortions inside the MDC, Mugabe was spending his time arranging scholarships for students and welcoming soccer players in Zimbabwe for a regional tournament. "As for this needless excitement from [Tsvangirai's party], I suppose the President will find time [to deal with it], when the right time comes," Charamba said.

With reporting by a TIME correspondent / Harare