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Daniel Howden: Appeal to Mugabe's former magnanimity fails

The most optimistic and magnanimous words spoken yesterday came from Robert Mugabe: "If you were my enemy yesterday, today we are bound by the same patriotic duty and destiny." They were not spoken by the 84-year-old autocrat, instead, they were quoted back to him by Zimbabwe's new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The former union leader confronted his rival with the older man's own eloquence, spoken in 1980 after the end of white rule. Mr Tsvangirai used the words this time to reach out to the same leadership that has had him beaten, imprisoned and charged with treason, but with whom he will now share power. Prime Minister Mugabe entered office 28 years ago with an appeal to the white community to stay and to reconcile. If Mr Tsvangirai's quote was an attempt to appeal to anything that remains of that liberation hero, it did not work.

When it was time for Mr Mugabe to speak there was no looking forward, only back to the same anti-colonial rants that have marked his public appearances in recent years. There was the same paranoia and misrepresentations of political violence, blaming the beatings and murders on the victims. And a total denial of responsibility for the current state of the country.

The rhetorical gap represented the actual divide between a new administration intent on addressing the economic crisis and an old administration intent on acting as though nothing had changed. While a queue of potential foreign donors from the IMF to the EU have promised a rescue package to refloat the economy they have also made it clear that this will not happen until there is a clear demonstration of the political will to overhaul the disastrous past policies. Only one side was prepared to speak about this. Mr Tsvangirai blamed the "policies of the past", while Mr Mugabe insisted all woes were "created by former colonial powers".

The tensions that have punctuated the talks process were close to the surface again yesterday with the new Prime Minister wincing through the President's tirade. It is hard not to see this as a precursor of their working relationship.