JOHANNESBURG, 21 January (IRIN) - Seven-months ago President Robert Mugabe was triumphant. He had trounced his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai - albeit controversially - in presidential elections, and had snuffed out the threat of urban civil resistance through a string of tough new laws.
But Zimbabwe's free-falling economy, with an inflation rate of around 200 percent and three-quarters of the population unemployed, plus a food emergency that has more than seven million people reliant on aid, has proved less amenable to resolution.
A political storm has now arisen over allegations that key ruling party members have been trying - with Mugabe's apparent blessing - to negotiate a deal with Tsvangirai that could lead to a government of national unity to tackle the country's economic and humanitarian crisis, and possibly Mugabe's early retirement.
Media reports linked parliamentary speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa (widely regarded as Mugabe's chosen successor) and armed forces chief-of-staff General Vitalis Zvinavashe to an alleged emmisary, retired Colonel Lionel Dyke, who met Tsvangirai in December. But the allegations of a proposal have been refuted by the ruling ZANU-PF, while Mugabe described the idea of such a deal as "counter-revolutionary".
Tsvangirai has also publically distanced himself. In a statement confirming that some kind of offer had been made by Dyke, he said: "The MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] is not in the business of arranging succession strategies for an illegitimate regime that survives on the basis of a systematic and ruthless subversion of democracy and fundamental human rights and continues to rule through the barrel of the gun."
However, in a rare interview Zvinavashe told local newspaper the Business Tribune earlier this month that the country was in crisis, and a national task force was needed to steer the country out of trouble. Although Zvinavashe did not say whether the opposition would be part of the task force, analysts told IRIN that his comments hinted at a possible compromise between ZANU-PF and the MDC.
"Zvinavashe's comments are significant as it lends credence to reports of talks of a compromise with the MDC. This is despite widespread denials within ZANU-PF that this is an option. Now that the inevitability of some kind of deal is in the public domain, the MDC may come under increasing pressure to agree to some kind of transitional arrangement," civil rights activist Reginald Machaba-Hove told IRIN. (See IRIN report http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=31776)
Behind the talk of backroom deals has been the glaring reality of Zimbabwe's economic collapse, and an opposition that over the past year has seen the potency of its political challenge whither in the face of widely reported cases of state-sponsored violence. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, over the course of 2002 there were 1,061 cases of torture and 58 political murders, the victims overwhelmingly being MDC supporters.
The economic gains and social services expansion of the 1980s have been thrown into reverse. Zimbabweans are now far poorer than they were in 1970. The economy has shrunk by 11 percent over the past year, a gulf widens daily between the official exchange rate (Zim $55 to US $1) and the parallel market (Zim $1,800 to US $1), skilled Zimbabweans have left in droves, company closures are accelerating, and fuel shortages worsening.
The government's search for new financiers has failed to match frozen donor aid and lost foreign exchange. Its land reform programme has undermined commercial farming, the bedrock of the economy and a political support base of the opposition, but as yet has been unable to create a new self-sufficient class of successful small-scale farmers. Production estimates for key crops for 2003 are forecast to be sharply down, which has also affected Zimbabwe's formerly robust agro-manufacturing industry. (See IRIN report http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=30736)
In the countryside where the majority of Zimbabweans live, there have been widespread reports of the politicisation of food distribution as a means of punishing perceived MDC supporters. The hardest hit group in the current food crisis are commercial farm workers who have no jobs and have been largely ignored by the land reform programme, humanitarian agencies warn.
The government's response to the deterioration in the standard of living in 2002 was to strengthen its hold on the economy with further price controls. That has led to yet more shortages on the shelves as goods are diverted to a booming black market, and howls of complaint from manufacturers whose imports are paid for in foreign currency.
According to a recent survey based on official prices by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ), a family of four needs Zim $35,000 [US $636] for basic commodities each month, a more than four-fold increase on the CCZ's January estimate. Although the government had announced an 80 percent salary increase for civil servants from January this year, the raise was condemned as insufficient by unions amid estimates suggesting that inflation could hit 500 percent in 2003. (See IRIN report http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=31013)
Meanwhile, a new class of business people has emerged. "It is within their interests to keep the regime blundering. They make their money from foreign currency speculation and the disposal of state owned enterprises. Their success is based on their capacity to pay bribes or posture as ZANU-PF stalwarts," said Brian Kagoro, coordinator of the umbrella Crisis in Zimbabwe committee.
Zimbabwe has struggled to overcome the political polarisation that marked the March presidential election. ZANU-PF represented the MDC as a front for Rhodesian and British interests and Mugabe as the leader that personified the struggle for independence. The opposition branded Mugabe a tyrant who had unleashed the war veterans as a personal militia to subvert democracy and would risk civil war to hold onto power.
When the votes were finally tallied, Mugabe had scored 56.2 percent to Tsvangirai's 41.9, with his strongest showing predictably in the rural areas, a traditional support base, but one which was also policed by the veterans. Western and local election observers condemned the poll as neither free nor fair.
Analysts say the MDC was slow to recover from the shock of its political defeat. Opposition activists were aware of the extent of the challenge presented by the levels of pre-election violence, the serious problems encountered over the voters' roll, the reduction of polling stations in urban areas, difficulties over monitoring, and the use of mobile polling booths in the countryside.
But even so, "there was still a feeling that if people came out in their millions, whatever rigging attempts had been made would be minimised", said Machaba-Hove, who headed the Zimbabwe Election Support Network.
"There were critical failures within the opposition movement," Kagoro told IRIN. "The first was the single strategy dilemma based on winning the election - there was no morning-after strategy. The morning-after shock exposed the poor quality of leadership, the poor quality of commitment, versus a dictator willing to pay any price to stay in power."
For many observers, the reconsolidation of Mugabe's authority has been based on undermining civil society structures, as well as the commercial farmers, on the basis of their perceived support for the MDC and independent financial clout. The police and army, who have remained loyal, have been key to that strategy, as well as legislation that controls public gatherings, limits the freedom of the press, the right to strike and the financing of NGOs.
After the sense of anticipation before the election, "the mood has changed" among many Zimbabweans that ordinarily would have voted for MDC, Nancy Kachingwe of the NGO network Mwengo told IRIN. "People's biggest problem is the food situation and their day-to-day cost of living, there is a sense of resignation on the political front ... To be an MDC activist at the moment is not the safest way to lead your life."
Throughout last year, despite predictions that economic conditions were so dire urban insurrection was only a matter of time, attempts to organise protest action in the form of labour-led stayaways flopped. "On the one hand we have the masses waiting for a leader to arrive, and at the same time we have the [opposition] leaders waiting for the masses to arise. Now there is a realisation for a need to reconstruct new structures at the grassroots, the need for greater coordination of effort," said Kagoro.
While Mugabe has battled Britain and thumbed his nose at European sanctions, he appears to have lost an element of regional support, some analysts believe. Although South Africa has persevered with its policy of quite diplomacy, apparently in the hope of agreement on a government of national unity, neighbours such as Botswana have voiced criticism of Zimbabwean government policy. Towards the end of last year, Mugabe even lost his seat as vice president of the Southern African Development Community.
"The ruling party has lost the economy, popular support, and friends in the region," Machaba-Hove said. "Across the political divide there is a feeling that there is a need for something to break the logjam of the political stalemate. The reality is we can't continue up to 2005, when the next parliamentary election is due, the way the economy is at the moment."
The path that appeared to begin with a visit by Dyke to Tsvangirai is one that was likely to be re-explored in weeks to come, Machaba-Hove said. "A government of national unity is one way to break the logjam, with an interim phase of a finite period of 12 to 18 months that doesn't absorb and corrupt the opposition. Economic stabalisation would be followed by free and fair elections under a new constitution," he suggested.
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