Zimbabwe's unholy alliance

Negotiations between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai rumble on, but the devil lies in the detail

Variations on South Africa's plan for a Zimbabwean government of national unity were on the table last September. They were agreed, in outline, by negotiators from both the government ZANU-PF and opposition MDC parties – in the unlikely setting of a houseboat moored on Lake Kariba between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As with earlier South African efforts, the plan came unstuck when it was put to Mugabe’s State House in Harare. There followed a pattern which had become chronic. Mugabe dug his feet in, not only for himself, but for the sake of the powerful coterie who dominated ZANU-PF and the security forces. Mbeki, notwithstanding the work of his mediators, failed to put the boot in and demand acceptance.

The MDC, meanwhile, had its own equivocations – never sure as to whether to accept a compromise or hope that it might secure outright victory in the elections set for March 2008.

The South African plan acquired its current detailing in the wake of the Kenya crisis of late 2007, and the subsequent unity brokered against the odds by Kofi Annan. The principle of a president with reduced powers and an executive prime minister derives from this Kenyan example.

When the results of the first electoral round went against Mugabe in March, he was inclined to accept defeat. But his hard men and generals demanded that he stay and fight. It was at this point that Mbeki again failed to apply pressure when it mattered. Over a protracted period, the true results of that first round – in which more than 50% of the vote went to the MDC’s Tsvangirai, were expertly whittled down by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, to support the need for a runoff. But that runoff was so blatantly prejudiced against Tsvangirai's MDC that even Mugabe's most loyal neighbours could not accept the result. The South Africans, led by Mbeki, have been pressing hard ever since.

There was almost a breakthrough at the SADC (Southern African Development Community) summit in Johannesburg last weekend. The pressure was on Mugabe. The Botswanan president had refused to attend and the Zambian foreign minister had delivered a stinging note of rebuke to the Zimbabwean president.

But neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai were able to make the final push. It is widely speculated that the issue of core disagreement is the relative shares of power that the two men will wield as president and prime minister. Yet the differences are finer than that.

Tsvangirai is prepared to concede power over the military to Mugabe, if Mugabe is prepared to concede power over the cabinet to Tsvangirai. Power over the police then come to Tsvangirai. The key sticking point is who controls the intelligence services. That will likely remain a portfolio controlled by ZANU-PF, but if the minister responsible sits in the cabinet, how much final veto will Tsvangirai as prime minister have over him? This is of key importance.

The military may array all its top generals behind Mugabe, but 70% of the rank and file voted for Tsvangirai in the first round. There are games of leverage that can be played within the military. The CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation) is the lynchpin of all that can happen politically in Zimbabwe. There are divisions within it but, by and large, it has always supported ZANU-PF. It is a slick and professional machine. It rigs the elections - and whoever controls it controls the brains behind coercion in Zimbabwe.

The final point of difference is the longevity of a coalition government. The MDC wants 2 years and fresh elections. ZANU-PF wants 5. It wants to rebuild itself and give the MDC enough rope to hang itself in power. Watch for a compromise of 3.

Mugabe knows that there is a final deadline awaiting him, and that is the likely ascension to power in Pretoria of Jacob Zuma next year. Mugabe won’t wait until then. Even his hardest men know that now is the time to make a tactical retreat in order to regroup and cling to as much power as possible. It may finally come down to a formulation that says: “the president, in council with the prime minister” will control both the military and the intelligence services. ZANU-PF will want the formulation to say that: “the president in council with the prime ministerial leadership of government”, and will hope to bargain for control of the deputy prime ministerships – though it may settle for one of the two posts. Mugabe will likely have extracted all he can by September and will present the compromise to the meeting of the ZANU-PF Central Committee scheduled for that month.

It is Tsvangirai who will have to convince a greater number of sceptics within the MDC that he has gotten all that he can. But he will. And the resulting unholy alliance will lead Zimbabwe into an uncertain, though at least less violent future.