Behind-the-scenes negotiations between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the main opposition party of Morgan Tsvangirai are under way in the wake of Saturday's elections, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.
Under a proposed deal, President Robert Mugabe would step down, allowing his ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to share power in a government of national unity, a senior MDC official confirmed Tuesday evening.
The official said that military chiefs, who are allied to Mr. Mugabe and recently said they would not salute Mr. Tsvangirai if he was elected president, had approached the opposition with the proposal of a national unity government.
"Such overtures have been made, but they are still in their infancy. Our leader [Tsvangirai] is skeptical about Mugabe's overtures because the old man is a skimmer and is cunning," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
A US State Department official said the talks followed projections showing Tsvangirai would beat Mugabe in the election but fall short of the 51 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff, according to Reuters.
Both Mugabe's government and Tsvangirai, however, denied Tuesday night that such talks are taking place.
If, in fact, Mugabe is negotiating his way out of office, it will be a sign of how far both the 84-year-old liberation leader and his once-powerful party have fallen.
A slow, decade-long collapse of the economy – under the weight of Western sanctions and self-destructive economic policies at home – has turned Mugabe into a deeply unpopular leader. Even Mugabe's staunchest supporters, the military and security agencies, seem to have lost the will to rig elections in his favor or to enforce his will on the streets, observers say.
"My sense is that they were unable to rig these elections, in part because of a lack of capacity and motivation by ZANU-PF officials and the security agencies," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane as Pretoria, South Africa, is now called.
Key reforms prevented vote rigging
Electoral reforms, negotiated under the leadership of the South African delegation to the Southern African Development Community, forced electoral officials to count votes at polling stations and to announce the results at the polling stations, Mr. Maroleng adds.
This prevented ZANU-PF officials from stuffing ballots later on at the central counting offices in Harare. Once the votes were counted, Mugabe's downfall was literally written on the wall.
In a press conference on Tuesday night, Tsvangirai declared victory of more than 50 percent of the vote and said that the tallies announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission jibed with MDC's own figures from the polling stations. Tsvangirai joined other MDC spokesmen in denying any negotiations were taking place with ZANU-PF, adding that any such negotiations could only take place once ZEC had announced the final results.
'A new Zimbabwe'?
"The vote on Saturday was a vote for change, for jobs, and to build a new Zimbabwe," said Tsvangirai, the former union leader, at a press conference in Harare. "There is no way the MDC can enter discussions with ZANU-PF until ZEC announces the results."
Even so, diplomats in Harare confirmed that negotiations were in fact going on. An African diplomat, who refused to be named, said the deal had been brokered by South Africa, but added that it was unlikely that the MDC would agree, considering Mugabe's political history of reneging on agreements.
"Remember in 1987, Mugabe lured [the rival militia movement] ZAPU to form a government of national unity but went on to 'swallow' the party," says the diplomat. "Tsvangirai is old enough to remember that."
Experts say it would be naive to assume that Mugabe or the ZANU-PF will simply hand over the keys to the government after losing an election. These negotiations, if they are occurring, will be part of a longer process of ensuring that ZANU-PF continues to play a role in Zimbabwe's government, even if the MDC takes power.
"I think that Robert Mugabe has lost the election, but he has not lost completely the House of Assembly," says Gordon Moyo, director of Bulawayo Agenda, a coalition of civil society groups in Bulawayo. "So in these negotiations, he may be telling MDC: 'You will not be able to pass any major constitutional changes through Parliament. We are going to block you.' It would be better to have a peaceful transition."
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.