Muriithi Mutiga: Opposition must make the most of its chance

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Zimbabwe'S President, Robert Mugabe, has never passed up an opportunity to demonstrate his distaste for the negotiations aimed at ending the crisis in his battered country.

His attempt to humiliate his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, at Harare airport sums up his dilemma: While Mr Mugabe holds the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change in contempt and has little stomach for ceding any executive power to the MDC, he has few other good options.

The parlous state of the economy – with runaway inflation compounded by the fact there is little produce for sale – means that domestic support for a substantive deal is overwhelming.

Any arrangement will have to vest significant power in any post offered to Mr Tsvangirai, according to the analyst Knox Chitiyo, the head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute.

In this situation, the pressure on the mediator, Thabo Mbeki, could prove decisive in the next few days.

Mr Mbeki, like Mr Mugabe, has never had much time for Mr Tsvangirai. The South African commentator William Gumede says they view his lack of a background in the liberation struggle and relatively modest educational credentials as disqualifying him from their own rarefied club.

But this logic has been undermined by the fact that most leading figures in the African National Congress have turned against Mr Mugabe as his regime has become more oppressive.

The shifting landscape has implications for both Mr Mugabe and Mr Mbeki.

Zanu-PF's favoured outcome would see Mr Tsvangirai take up a non-executive prime minister's position. This would almost certainly be rejected in the West, and it is unlikely to be welcomed regionally.

Zanu-PF could yet push ahead with a deal that accommodates Arthur Mutambara's splinter MDC faction.

Under this plan, Mr Mugabe would chip away at the MDC's wafer-thin majority in parliament by offering opposition MPs cabinet positions and then presenting it to the rest of Africa as a fait accompli triggered by the MDC's obstinacy.

All this means Mr Tsvangirai has to make the most of his bargaining position as the head of the one party that could help end the economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

The MDC is pushing for a French-style system where the party leader takes up the position of an executive prime minister for a period before elections.

For Mr Tsvangirai – never the most decisive of leaders – exploiting the bargaining chips he has at hand will prove to be his most formidable challenge.

Muriithi Mutiga is a senior writer for Nation Media Group

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