/ 23 September 2007

What will election deal cost Zim opposition?

Zimbabwe’s divided opposition was pressured by international mediators into accepting the framework for next year’s elections in a move that will likely condemn it to defeat, according to analysts.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which previously denounced the planned constitutional amendments as a means to rig the legislative and presidential elections, made a surprise U-turn last week and voted for the legislation.

While conceding it might appear that it had ”abandoned its principles”, MDC lawmakers insisted the real significance lay in the fact that President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party were engaging with the opposition.

However, analysts believe the apparent climbdown was due to pressure from South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been mandated by his peers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to help Zanu-PF and the MDC resolve their differences before the polls take place, probably in March.

Takura Zhangazha, a Harare-based analyst, said it was no surprise the MDC’s announcement came after some of its leaders met Mbeki in Pretoria last weekend. ”The MDC has been pressured by the Southern African Development Community into a power-brokering initiative which may cost them next year,” he said.

Zhangazha said the MDC were naive if they believed they could ensure a level-playing field by negotiating with a party that has been in power in the former British colony since independence in 1980. ”There is no way Zanu-PF can negotiate itself out of power,” he said.

Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, agreed pressure from Mbeki rather than the prospect of concessions from Zanu-PF about the conduct of the election was behind the opposition change of heart.

”Zanu-PF can celebrate after this because they have locked the MDC in and they are assured of their full support in the constitutional reforms,” he said.

Other opposition activists have been dismayed by the MDC’s move, including the National Constitutional Assembly, which has been pushing for a completely new constitution.

”Both formations of the MDC seem to be out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary Zimbabweans who are clamouring for an open and genuine process of democratisation,” it said in a statement. ”The inescapable conclusion is that the so-called agreement on the amendment is nothing but a power game. It must therefore be rejected.”

The MDC has been riven by divisions with two factions now sitting in Parliament, sending rival representatives to the South African-led mediation talks.

A report by the International Crisis Group — released on the same day the MDC announced it would not oppose the legislation — highlighted how the divisions were playing into Zanu-PF’s hands.

”A divided opposition offers Zanu-PF the prospect of an easy electoral victory, while harming its own bargaining power in the SADC mediation,” it said. ”In the present environment, it is difficult to see how the MDC can regain any ability to influence events as elections approach.”

Bill Saidi, deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, said outside pressure was crucial in breaking the impasse but detected concessions from both sides, given Zanu-PF’s willingness to talk to a party it has denounced as stooges of Mugabe’s critics.

”I think both parties are under tremendous pressure from SADC to make concessions,” Saidi said. ”Mugabe has at last accepted he cannot continue telling everyone to go to hell, that’s why he has agreed to dialogue with the MDC.”

MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa also portrayed the development as a Zanu-PF climbdown. ”They are the ones who were saying the MDC is made up of puppets and they would not negotiate with puppets, but we have managed to put pressure on them and bring them to the negotiation table.”

Mugabe (83) is seeking a seventh term at a time when Zimbabwe is grappling with the world’s highest rate of inflation, widespread food shortages and mass unemployment. — Sapa-AFP