Tsvangirai takes Zimbabwe power talks to the brink

Opposition leader threatens to walk away from a deal as President Mugabe refuses to hand over majority control

President Robert Mugabe is due to come face to face with his main rival in talks that could see the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, appointed as prime minister in a coalition government.

It follows the arrival of the South African President Thabo Mbeki in Harare yesterday, where he is mediating between Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democrat Change (MDC). "We anticipate that there could be a signing after the leaders have met to thrash out the remaining issues," one ruling party official told Reuters last night.

While Mr Mbeki has insisted on negotiations being conducted in private, there is growing optimism that behind the scenes an agreement can be reached – with suggestions that Mr Mugabe will keep the title of President, but for the first time surrender some of his executive powers.

But while Mr Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, described the discussions as a "milestone", it remains unlikely that the President will cede majority control. It is a sticking point that led Mr Tsvangirai's allies to warn he could yet walk away from the negotiating table.

"With Mugabe holding 100 per cent of executive power as it stands, it must now be decided what percentage of powers Tsvangirai will get," a member of the talks said.

Sceptics point to the bloody campaign of late June that ensured Mr Mugabe's victory in the disputed one-man presidential run-off. "He didn't kill over 300 people and terrorise the nation only to give it away for nothing to this man after two weeks of talks," said an unnamed Harare-based commentator.

The MDC has warned that Mr Tsvangirai "will walk away, with the mandate of his party, if he is offered anything short of full executive power". Should Mr Tsvangirai take such a decision, Mr Mugabe is likely immediately to form a government without him, banishing Mr Tsvangirai to the political wilderness for the next five years.

But if Mr Tsvangirai enters Mr Mugabe's government as a junior partner, he will make things difficult for the international donor community, which has said on repeated occasions that it will fund only a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. With the donor community his trump card – international aid is critical to the bankrupt country – Mr Tsvangirai could choose to sit tight and let the talks stall, rather than break off or see his party subsumed in government. Even then, Mr Mugabe could still insist on the need to form an administration, given that Zimbabwe has been without one for over five months.

Talks had already broken down once, before they resumed last Sunday. The MDC has negotiated for a 30-month transitional government, but Zanu-PF wants it to run for the full five-year term.

"Does it make sense to insist you will only agree to marriage if the certificate includes the date of eventual divorce?" Mr Charamba wrote in yesterday's The Herald.

The parties are also divided on the size of the future coalition, with the MDC pushing for 22 ministries while Zanu-PF demands 38. The talks began on Friday before Mr Mbeki's arrival. He began a round of talks with each party leader before their joint session. Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a breakaway MDC faction, has also been invited to participate.

Mr Mbeki is under pressure to show results before he hosts a Southern African Development Community summit later this month. The SADC appointed him to find a solution to a crisis that is undermining regional security. Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has added urgency to the search for a settlement. On Friday, Western nations urged the lifting of restrictions on the activities of aid agencies in Zimbabwe imposed on 4 June after the government accused them of favouring opposition supporters in the distribution of food aid.

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