Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Monday denied news reports that it was involved in a deal to guarantee a safe exit for President Robert Mugabe and the setting up of a power-sharing government.
The UK daily The Times, and the Associated Press news agency, on Monday reported that under the arrangement, allegedly backed by leading members of the ruling ZANU-PF party, Mugabe would receive a guarantee of immunity against prosecution over alleged misrule and human rights violations.
According to The Times, parliamentary speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa (widely regarded as Mugabe's chosen successor), and armed forces chief of staff General Vitalis Zvinavashe had contacted MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai about the deal and promised that Mugabe would stand down.
The newspaper quoted MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai as recently saying his party was ready to provide Mugabe, currently on vacation in Thailand, with immunity if he gave up power.
But the MDC has denied any involvement in the plan, saying since the collapse of talks in May 2002 brokered by South Africa and Nigeria, negotiations with ZANU-PF were "closed".
"The MDC is not aware of such a plan," vice-president Gibson Sibanda told IRIN. "We remain open to negotiations with ZANU-PF with regards to the setting up of a transitional authority. Under this transitional authority the decline of the economy, food shortages and other issues bedevilling this country would be addressed. However, this transitional authority will not rule indefinitely. We are still committed to holding fresh elections."
Sibanda added that the MDC did not have a policy on whether or not Mugabe would face prosecution should he relinquish power. "There is no hard position on whether Mugabe would receive a total amnesty or not should he give up power. We will wait and see what ZANU-PF puts on the table and then we will decide," Sibanda said.
ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira also dismissed The Times report as "a mixture of wishful thinking and mischief on the part of the British".
French news agency AFP quoted Shamuyarira as saying: "We are alarmed by the extent to which Britain is prepared to go to interfere in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe ... It is not possible to form a government of national unity with an irresponsible opposition, an opposition that does not respect the constitution, that does not respect the presidency, that does not respect parliament."
Moreover, Shamuyarira added, there was no constitutional provision to form a government of national unity before Mugabe's current term expires in 2007.
The MDC has refused to accept the results of the March 2002 presidential election, saying that voting was rigged and influenced by violence and intimidation. The ensuing political stalemate has been accompanied by an economic meltdown, manifested in an acute foreign currency scarcity, fuel and food and shortages.
"ZANU-PF is becoming increasingly aware of how untenable the current situation really is," John Makumbe, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe told IRIN. "There is definitely credibility to the proposed ouster plan, although ZANU-PF is unlikely to admit to it."
Jackie Cilliers, director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN that reference to the power-sharing deal and proposed immunity for Mugabe in news reports probably referred to a claim made by Tsvangirai last month that there were diplomatic efforts afoot to get him to meet with Mugabe.
In an address to MDC parliamentarians in December, Tsvangirai claimed then that Britain, South Africa and the ruling party were working behind the scenes to get him to the negotiating table with Mugabe to discuss the country's many crises. He named a retired army officer, Colonel Lionel Dyke, as an alleged emissary of Mnangagwa and Zvinavashe.
Cilliers said: "There has been talk for some months now about a possible deal. If it turns out to be credible then this would satisfy South Africa as they have always favoured quiet diplomacy as the answer to Zimbabwe's problems. But it is important to note that ZANU-PF is not as unified as it is portrayed in the media. There are factions which have great interest in maintaining the status quo, while others realise that a sinking Zimbabwe doesn't help anybody."
Civil society activist Reginald Machaba-Hove told IRIN that Dyke's meeting with Tsvangirai was likely "a fishing expedition, not the start of serious negotiations. I see this as the start of exploratory talks, to see if the MDC would be open to such an arrangement, and it would be very suprising if it was not with the knowledge of President Mugabe".
He added that not only had the media publicity "killed" the prospect of any such deal, but it would also be likely rejected by Zimbabwean NGOs, an important support base for the MDC. "Civil society's position would be for broad-based consultations, not a deal done by a few people behind closed doors," Machaba-Hove said.