MDC's gamble

2008-09-22 00:00

“We have a deal,” said Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), nearly two weeks ago. President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country with an iron hand for the past 28 years, will still head the cabinet, but it will contain one more member from the opposition than from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. Tsvangirai will be prime minister, chairing a newly created Council of State that “supervises” the cabinet.

Nobody knows what that means, but it is obviously an unworkable arrangement. The crucial question is who controls the security forces, and the real answer to that, even if the deal gives day-to-day control of the police to the MDC, is Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s senior army and police officers are bound to Mugabe by hoops of steel, for the many murders they have committed to keep him in power would not be pardoned by any successor regime. Unless, of course, an amnesty for all that killing is a secret part of the deal.

That would change a lot of things, for the army and police high command could then see a future for themselves past the end of Mugabe, and might no longer be unconditionally on his side. South African President Thabo Mbeki, the mediator who has structured this deal, knows that such an amnesty would help to ease Mugabe gradually out of power while preserving his dignity — and keeping Zanu-PF in power.

Those have been Mbeki’s goals all along. Although he is almost two decades younger than the 84-year-old Mugabe, they both belong to the “independence generation” of southern African leaders who led the struggle against white minority rule. Mugabe has wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy, ordered the killing of tens of thousands of its citizens and has driven one-quarter of the population abroad as economic refugees — but in Mbeki’s eyes he still deserves respect for his historic role.

This is very difficult for the Zimbabwean opposition, who won a parliamentary majority in the election last March. Tsvangirai also beat Mugabe by a clear margin in the presidential vote, even after all the intimidation and ballot-box stuffing by the regime. However, since Tsvangirai fell slightly short of 50% of the votes when the regime announced the results of the presidential election (almost a month late), he was forced into a run-off against Mugabe in June.

The regime mobilised the Zanu-PF party’s various militias, backed by the army and police, to kill or terrorise enough MDC supporters to win the second vote. Several hundred were murdered and several hundred thousand people were driven from their homes. Tsvangirai withdrew from the second round of the election a few days before the vote to avoid further bloodshed, since the regime was clearly going to announce a Zanu-PF victory anyway, and Mugabe was duly “re-elected” president in an unopposed vote.

So what calculation can have led Tsvangirai, Jonathon Moyo (MP) and the other MDC leaders to accept a deal that leaves Mugabe as president and at the head of the cabinet? They don’t trust Mbeki, because they know that he does not want the MDC to end up in power, regardless of what Zimbabweans think. Were they pressured into the deal? Could they see no alternative except civil war?

Maybe, but not necessarily. If a secret amnesty for the crimes committed by the military and police is part of the deal, then their need to keep Mugabe in power evaporates. And Mbeki has to relinquish the presidency of South Africa next year, so after that the neighbourhood giant will no longer be determined to protect Mugabe and keep Zanu-PF in power.

Mbeki’s successor is already known. It is Jacob Zuma, who has openly condemned Mugabe and criticised Mbeki’s handling of the situation.

The decision of a South African court 11 days ago that corruption charges against Zuma were politically motivated and could not proceed clears the final obstacle from his path to the presidency — and when he is running South Africa, the regional balance of forces will shift radically in the MDC’s favour.

So the Zimbabwean opposition has accepted an unsatisfactory deal now in the hope that next year will bring more. Since Zimbabwe desperately needs foreign economic aid and definitely does not need continued political paralysis or civil war, it was a responsible decision. Whether it is the right decision, nobody yet knows.

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