Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, and his opposition rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, have given themselves a fortnight to reach a deal to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis. The pair briefly put aside bitter personal enmities yesterday to sign a memorandum of understanding that launched formal talks with a two-week deadline to achieve some form of power-sharing agreement.
While the deal marks a milestone in the history of the impoverished African nation it remains unclear what can be done to bridge the gulf between the two sides in such a short time frame.
The language of the document was sufficiently opaque to give little indication of how a settlement might be reached. It said Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe "have an obligation" to establish a framework of "working together in an inclusive government". The document was signed at a Harare hotel in the presence of South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, who has acted as Mr Mugabe's political shield, deflecting a chorus of international criticism of the 84-year-old leader.
The agreement, which comes nearly three months after Zimbabwe's disputed presidential election, calls for an immediate halt to the violence in which more than 120 opposition supporters have been killed and thousands more injured.
Any progress in the talks, which Mr Mbeki will mediate, will require unprecedented compromises from both sides. And judging by their respective positions going into the dialogue expected to start tomorrow, the gap between Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF Party and Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) appears unbridgeable.
The opposition leader, who beat his rival by a clear margin in the March poll, will settle for nothing below an executive prime minister's post with powers to appoint the cabinet and overhaul Mr Mugabe's "insane" economic and political policies, an MDC source told The Independent.
MDC officials said Mr Tsvangirai, a former union leader, would want to take executive power in a "government of national healing" instead of the national unity administration preferred by Mr Mugabe. The transitional authority would allow a period of recovery during which new economic policies could be introduced to ease the crisis gripping the country, introduce a new constitution and overhaul electoral institutions infected by cronyism.
Mr Mugabe, on other other hand, wants to retain the post of executive President and be recognised as head of state until the expiry of his five-year term after his victory in the 27 June run-off election, which was boycotted by his rival and dismissed by African observers as a sham.
The veteran President predictably prefers to amend the current constitution, which vests him with powers of an absolute monarch, rather than the creation of a new one.
Mr Tsvangirai concedes that amendments to the constitution are required to create the position that he wants to assume in government, but he regards such amendments as a temporary measure only, pending the writing of a new constitution.
Mr Mugabe wants to allocate a "senior role" in government to the man who beat him by six points three months ago, but not to make him prime minister. This option would hand Mr Tsvangirai "senior ministerial" role where he would oversee some but not all ministerial portfolios.
Mr Mugabe's supporters in the military – who have wielded considerable power during the terror campaign against the opposition – are also said to be fiercely opposed to making the opposition leader a prime minister with executive powers.
Mike Davies, an Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said the differences between the two parties were so entrenched that it was difficult to see how they could be overcome.
Mr Mugabe said the framework will "chart a new way" for the troubled country. But the long-time leader, who has accused his rival of being a puppet controlled by the West, urged negotiators to resist influence from Europe and the United States. He called on all involved to be "masters of our own destiny".
If the dialogue does not bear fruit, largely due to Mr Mugabe's intransigence in giving up power, then Britain and America's call for tougher sanctions is likely to come back louder and stronger.
How many Zim dollars to the pound?
The Zimbabwean dollar yesterday hit a new low, with the exchange rate reaching one trillion to the US dollar.
The next significant milestones would be a quadrillion (15 zeros), and then aquintillion (18).