Desperate country looks for a political solution

Zimbabwe's feuding political parties are meeting in South Africa this week to again try salvaging a moribund political agreement that is stalling the release of much-needed humanitarian aid.

The inter-party talks, which began on 25 November, are aimed at resolving the dispute over the draft bill of Constitutional Amendment Number 19, which should pave the way to the formation of a government of national unity.

The amendment would create the positions of a Prime Minister and two deputies - posts intrinsic to the deal reached on 15 September between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party of Morgan Tsvangirai, and an MDC splinter group led by Arthur Mutambara.

The government last week announced that its legal department had drafted the amendment bill, with input from all three parties, and had sent a copy to former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who has been mandated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate the talks.

Tsvangirai's MDC (MDC-T) immediately denied that it had been consulted, and instead sent its own version of the bill to Mbeki. But the party has said it was looking forward to the all-party talks in South Africa, to clear the way to a power-sharing government.

"We are hopeful ... that all the outstanding issues that have been stalling the talks will be ironed out, because we need to move on as a country and tackle [our] economic and social problems," said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa.

Donors - including South Africa, which had promised $30 million in agricultural aid - have linked humanitarian assistance to a working power-sharing government. That may be enough to end talk of an MDC-T walkout, or ZANU-PF's threat to form a government on its own.

Stumbling blocks

The stumbling blocks to the inception of a unity government include equitable distribution of the so-called "power ministries", and the sharing of ambassadorial posts and permanent secretary positions.

MDC-T also wants the position of provincial governors to be allocated according to the outcome of the March 2008 general election, in which it won a narrow majority of seats - the first time ZANU-PF has lost control of parliament since independence in 1980.

ZANU-PF's politburo, the party's decision-making body, has insisted that Mugabe will not reverse the appointment of the 12 governors he made almost two months ago.

Political analyst Max Mnkandla said he was not optimistic that all the outstanding issues related to the draft bill could be ironed out this week.

"The MDC-T has vowed it will not accept any deal that does not give it a share of the governorships, ambassadors' positions and permanent secretaries, and the Ministry of Home Affairs [which controls the police], and that should be included in the draft bill," he told IRIN.

"But ZANU-PF will not agree to give in to the MDC demands, and the issue of Constitutional Amendment Number 19 will be refereed to SADC for mediation, and this is a circle," Mnkandla said.

If the parties do reach a consensus on the bill, it would still be some time before a power-sharing government was inaugurated. Procedurally, the draft bill must be gazetted for 30 days before returning to parliament for debate and adoption.

The bill would need a two-thirds majority of the 210 seats in parliament for it to be passed, and would then require Mugabe's assent. The MDC-T has 100 seats, ZANU-PF 99 seats, Mutambara's MDC 10 seats and one independent. 

Blocked from travelling to Zimbabwe by the government, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former US president Jimmy Carter and rights advocate Graça Machel - dubbed 'The Elders'- released a statement on 24 November urging a resolution to Zimbabwe's inter-related political and humanitarian crisis.

"What we have learned in the past few days is shocking. It is not just the extent of Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis, but the speed of deterioration in the past few weeks that is most worrying. The scale, depth and urgency of the situation are underreported," Annan said in South Africa, where the trio had met political leaders, businessmen, aid workers, donors and civil society representatives.