By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009
JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 30 -- Zimbabwe's main opposition party announced Friday that it would enter a unity government with autocratic President Robert Mugabe, bending to pressure to end a nearly five-month impasse that had paralyzed the government as a humanitarian and economic crisis grew more dire by the day.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said his party determined that working within the government offered the best route to democracy and to ending Zimbabweans' suffering. But he expressed skepticism about sharing power with Mugabe, Zimbabwe's iron-fisted ruler for nearly 29 years.
"We are not saying that this is a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. Instead, our participation signifies that we have chosen to continue the struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe in a new arena," Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare, the capital. He added, "Now is the time for us to put aside our political differences, to prioritize the welfare of the people."
Tsvangirai is to be sworn in as prime minister on Feb. 11 as part of a power-sharing pact, reached in September, that could provide an opening for the revival of Zimbabwe, a once-flourishing nation that is buckling under hyperinflation, hunger and a cholera epidemic.
But questions remain, key among them whether Mugabe -- whom the opposition says has betrayed the deal by claiming key ministries and imprisoning and torturing opposition activists -- will cooperate with or undermine the man who has been his political foe for a decade. Over the years, Tsvangirai has been beaten, imprisoned, charged with treason and denied travel documents by Mugabe's enforcers.
"Whether this government will become functional, given the distrust between the two parties, you can say the jury is still out," said Sydney Masamvu, a South Africa-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. "I do not think this inclusive government, with two centers of power, will do much in the short term."
Under the terms of the deal, which require the ruling party and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change to share control of the ministry that oversees police, Mugabe will retain his grip on most of the security forces he has long deployed to quell dissent. But one opposition official said the party believes its control of the finance, health and education ministries will allow it to quickly channel resources to the public.
That is an argument that a splinter group of the main opposition party, which will also take part in the unity government, has been making for months. David Coltart, a senator with that group, said Friday that he had "no doubt" Mugabe's party would try to sabotage the deal and corrupt opposition ministers. But the deal gives the opposition the best chance to help Zimbabweans, he said.
"People know what ZANU-PF delivered in the last 28 years," Coltart said of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. "If we work hard and we're competent, then I have no doubt that we will get credit for what we do."
Tsvangirai's party had refused to implement the pact unless Mugabe agreed to conditions including the unconditional release of activists and the relinquishment of the Home Affairs Ministry. But the opposition's options narrowed as regional leaders mediating the standoff pushed for power-sharing and declined to condemn Mugabe, who refused to step down after losing to Tsvangirai in the first round of the presidential election last year.
After a summit Monday, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community set a timeline for the unity government that Tsvangirai said offered the opposition some concessions. But by crafting a timeline, opposition insiders said, the regional bloc eliminated the party's hopes of appealing for support from the African Union at its semiannual meeting this weekend.
"The A.U. would have been within its right to say the process is ongoing," one opposition official said. "If we stand on principle now, we might be unable to address the situation in the country for another six months."
The opposition won a parliamentary majority in last year's polls, but Tsvangirai pulled out of a runoff after state security forces launched a bloody crackdown on opposition supporters. Mugabe claimed the presidency after an election that was internationally condemned.
In the months since Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed the deal, a cholera epidemic has killed more than 3,100 people and inflation has rendered the Zimbabwean dollar so worthless that the finance minister on Thursday approved the use of foreign currency -- something that had been happening for months. Schools and hospitals have closed, and sanitation systems have collapsed.
Many Western governments, meanwhile, have called on Mugabe to resign and refused to lift sanctions or offer aid for reconstruction unless Tsvangirai gains true power, an incentive analysts say forced Mugabe to hold off on threats to form a government on his own. But when -- or whether -- Zimbabwe could expect an influx of aid remained unclear.
"We are a bit skeptical. These types of things have been announced before," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters in Washington. He added: "If and when there is a government in place in Zimbabwe that reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people, the United States will then look to see what we can do to continue to help."
Reaction to the unity government was also reserved in Harare. While some opposition supporters cheered the decision, others grumbled that their leaders had surrendered to the enemy, observers said.
"The MDC's followers sort of feel that it's not going to work," said Iden Wetherell, a top editor at the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard newspapers. "The very people who are responsible for going around abducting them and torturing are exactly the same people upon whom success of this project depends."