Efforts by southern African leaders to end the Zimbabwe crisis by breaking the deadlock between President Robert Mugabe and his arch rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, failed last night.
The stalemate was a personal defeat for Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, who assumed the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Saturday vowing to get a deal during the summit.
Mr Mbeki, who faces criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the crisis, said that talks would continue.
Even after their gathering had officially ended, he summoned Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai back for a last-ditch attempt to get a deal, but to no avail.
Zimbabwe's autocratic President and the opposition leader are dealocked over the balance of power between the roles of prime minister and president.
Diplomatic sources said SADC leaders had tabled their own proposals in an attempt to break the impasse. It would have amounted to Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe sharing power equally. Both parties rejected it.
Mr Tsvangirai has come under intense pressure to sign up to Mr Mbeki's proposal, which would see Mr Mugabe retain much of his current authority.
The former trade union leader argues that the proposal would, in effect, make him a "ceremonial prime minister" in a government led by the man whom he defeated in the first-round presidential election in March.
Mr Mugabe, on the other hand, insists the proposal leaves the opposition leader with sufficient powers to make a difference.
Mr Tsvangirai, 54, is said to have tabled a counter proposal last night that would have switched roles. "His logic is that since Mugabe is saying the deal currently on the table gives the prime minister a lot of powers, then he must assume that position and Tsvangirai becomes president," said a diplomatic source. "That suggestion made Mugabe furious and he rejected it."
The dramatic failure of SADC leaders to broker a deal means that "we are back to square one," said an MDC official.
Regional leaders said in their final communiqué that Zimbabwe's parliament could now be convened, apparently indicating their backing for Mr Mugabe to appoint a new cabinet and a new prime minister.
Previous agreements, including an African Union accord and a memorandum of understanding between the two rivals, required a negotiated settlement before a new government could be formed.
Zimbabwe's neighbours fear the consequences if the country's political stalemate and economic decline lead to total meltdown, and there are growing signs of impatience.
Botswana's President, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, boycotted the summit.
Millions of Zimbabweans have fled across its borders to escape the world's highest inflation rate of over 2 million per cent as well as high unemployment and shortages of basic goods.Reuse content