Battle of the bald eagles

Yesterday was D-Day in what has been dubbed the battle of the bald eagles – President PW Botha and NP leader FW de Klerk. But the turmoil in the party runs so deep that not even three top-level party meetings could bring an outcome. In a terse statement last night, De Klerk said the discussions between Botha, himself and the party's provincial leader were held in "a good spirit" and were "extensive and incisive and it was agreed further discussions will take place. "This has been conveyed to the caucus of the National Party and the caucus has noted this with under­ standing," he said. He gave no indication of when the discussions would resume or what the agenda would be.  

The statement gave little indication of the battle taking place in the party – but signalled a failure to hammer out a compromise. And this was seen last night as a victory for Botha and the first re­ sounding defeat for De Klerk in his new job as party leader. Botha announced yesterday that he intends re­ turning to work next week – a fortnight ahead of his original schedule. It is clear from party sources that the NP parliamentary caucus has rallied around its new leader, De Klerk, and wants him to take control of the government.

The vast majority of the caucus also wants an early election, sometime in May, not only to establish De Klerk as their leader and the next president, but also to end Botha's term. The meeting today, according to the sources, was generally aimed at securing the early resignation of the State President in favour of De Klerk. But   Botha, a   tough and   often shrewd political fighter, is determined to hold on to power. Significantly, Botha is being backed by his Cape leader and long-time ally, Acting President Chris Heunis, and is resisting calls for an early election. Last night's bland and uninforma­tive statement was widely seen as a sign that Botha had won this round of the battle for ultimate power.

Even the SABC last night reported the meeting of the party bosses was "apparently a very tough session. "There is as yet no clear agreement on the working relationship (between the two men) and more talks will have to follow. It also seems to signify that it (the meetings) have not done much to defuse the tension … in the party," the SABC commentator said. De Klerk, who has behaved as de facto leader in Botha's absence, ap­peared to have misread the veteran leader's determination to return. Botha's loss of support in the NP caucus seems not to bother him and he believes that he can use his powerful office to re-establish his position.

Constitutionally, the caucus has little power to challenge Botha's decision but he could find himself more and more isolated, with most of the cabinet and the caucus determined to wrest control from him. It is speculated that Botha was angered by the "indecent haste" with which De Klerk sought to take over, and that he might even try to sideline him in the coming months. This is supported by the apparently peeved tone adopted by Botha in his first interview since his stroke. He could see he was "in the way of some people", but he "couldn't believe that, after 50 years of service, the NP was no longer interested in him."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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