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Talks to End Zimbabwe Political Crisis Not Seen as Imminent

Zimbabwe has, for the past five years, been stuck in its worst political and economic crisis since independence in 1980. Much of the international community is in agreement that the situation can only be resolved with talks between incumbent President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But various efforts aimed at initiating such talks have failed, because Mr. Mugabe accuses the opposition of having a hidden agenda.

The most recent attempt to get the two parties to the negotiating table was by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who announced President Robert Mugabe had agreed to talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

It has been more than a month since Mr. Obasanjo made that announcement. However, up to now, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai says there are no formal or informal talks with the ruling ZANU-PF Party, but should those talks ever happen; the opposition objective is clear.

"We need a constitutional arrangement for a transition and, at the end of the day, we need joint parliament and presidential elections for a legitimate outcome," he said. "That election must be conducted under international supervision, to build the confidence in Zimbabweans, because they have already been cheated over the last three elections, so they need that confidence.".

According to Professor John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe that agenda is precisely why Mr. Mugabe is unwilling to talk to the opposition, because it could involve his leaving office before the end of his current term, in 2008.

"I know that Mugabe is not even intending to talk to the MDC or to Morgan Tsvangirai about his exit package, because he has already said he will consider leaving after completing his current term," he said. "So there is really no need for talks about pulling Zimbabwe from the brink of collapse."

For his part, Mr. Mugabe says he has nothing to discuss with the MDC outside of parliament, where his ruling ZANU-PF party enjoys a two-thirds majority, enough to change the constitution or pass legislation without the opposition. He accuses the MDC of being a front for a British plan to recolonize Zimbabwe.

"The MDC is completely different from other opposition parties," Mr. Mugabe said. "This is a creature put in place by the British and there is nothing you can do to them unless they disengage themselves from Britain. Talks are useless unless the MDC is seen to be nationalistic and is not being dictated to. If it has a master behind it, then it is that master that, we must engage."

Mr. Tsvangirai scoffs at the allegations that he is a puppet of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. However, The MDC leader admits that, sometimes, Mr. Blair makes comments he described as unhelpful. Last year, the British leader stood up in parliament and said he was working for regime change in Zimbabwe, with the opposition MDC.

South Africa and Nigeria managed to get the two Zimbabwe parties talking, after the disputed 2002 presidential elections. But those negotiations collapsed when the opposition refused to withdraw a court challenge to Mr. Mugabe's victory. Then, as now, the opposition has insisted on electoral reform, complaining that the playing field is heavily tilted in favor of Mr. Mugabe's party.

The MDC, formed in 1999, also participated in the 2000 and 2005 parliament elections. It lost both of them, but says the elections were fraudulent and not free and fair. Many Zimbabwean and international observers came to a similar conclusion.

Given the polarized positions of their politicians, it seems that Zimbabweans - reeling under the country's worsening economic crisis - have to prepare themselves for things to get worse. Fuel, food and other basic necessities are in short supply. Some estimates put the unemployment rate at as high as 80 percent and inflation now stands at more than 160 percent. Mr. Mugabe blames the MDC and what he calls its western backers for the problems facing the country. However, analysts point to economic mismanagement by the government and the sometimes-violent land reform program launched in 2000 as the causes.

Mr. Tsvangirai says his party is working on strategies to bring pressure on Mr. Mugabe to negotiate, because advice from fellow African leaders and the suffering of Zimbabweans do not seem to be working. Without disclosing the nature of the strategies under consideration, he says they will be more robust than the general strikes his party has called before.

"Stay-away [striking] is an exhausted strategy simply, because stay-away is a passive way of resistance," said Mr. Tsvangirai. "So I think we need [a] more active and more positive way of resisting."

University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe says, by going into parliament where ZANU-PF passes its repressive legislation, the MDC has joined the ruling elite and the people should not look to the opposition party for solutions, any more. He says Zimbabweans can force Mr. Mugabe to compromise by engaging in non-violent ways of making the country ungovernable. He says this does not require the formation of a new party, but mobilization through civic organizations.