After weeks of insisting that it had won Zimbabwe's March 29 elections outright and that Robert Mugabe's government would be pressured to accept defeat, the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has begun to reach out to smaller parties to form a unified front ahead of a possible runoff against Mr. Mugabe.
The opposition's change of strategy may be the result of an increasingly polarized environment, where government officials have accused MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai of treason, as well as a belated realization that the MDC has little to no leverage over the Mugabe regime, which controls all levers of power in Zimbabwe.
Yet the MDC is not the only one courting smaller parties. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF seems to have had a head start, laying the groundwork for a possible comeback after the humiliating vote.
Paul Siwela, head of the smaller Federal Democratic Union party says he has met with ZANU-PF officials recently, and he believes that the only solution now is for Mr. Tsvangirai to give up his insistence that MDC won the election outright.
Instead, he urges Tsvangirai to call for an all-parties conference to remove obstacles to a behind-the-scenes deal to transfer power away from Mugabe, including the fears of ZANU-PF officials of being prosecuted for human rights violations, corruption, and the violent seizure of white-owned farms since 2000.
"What happened to [former Liberian leader Charles Taylor] after he lost elections? He was taken to The Hague," says Siwela. "These issues will not allow power to go to [Tsvangirai]. Those issues cannot be resolved by the electoral process." Speaking of Tsvangirai's MDC, he adds, "They're excited, immature. They are not ready to rule."
Many things have kept Mugabe in power for 28 years, but one key factor is the lack of a unified, organized opposition. This year's election – while it is the closest to dislodging a man whom the British tabloid press nicknamed "Mad Bob" – is no exception.
And even though outside pressure on Mugabe is rising – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Africa for lack of action on Zimbabwe on Thursday and South Africa shifted its stance to express concern for the first time – the divisions within Zimbabwe's diverse opposition are still strong enough to give Mugabe ample chances to hold recounts without foreign observers and to cling onto power for another five years no matter what the outside world says. But with MDC reaching out to smaller parties, that attitude may finally be changing.
MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said his party was already talking with other parties to form an alliance to push Mugabe out of power.
"We are in constant contact with our colleagues in other parties to seek a way of making sure normalcy returns to this country," Mr. Chamisa said. "We are working with parties that we see are real and want change."
Chamisa refused to name the parties that MDC is negotiating with, but sources in the MDC said the opposition party has already approached smaller parties.
MDC's reaching out comes in a week where Zimbabwe's High Court gave permission for a recount of the March 29 election results and acting Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa turned up the heat by accusing Tsvangirai of treason.
Claiming to have obtained a letter from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Tsvangirai, promising a meeting of southern African leaders about the Zimbabwe crisis, Mr. Chinamasa told the state-owned newspaper, the Herald, "It is clear from the correspondence that Tsvangirai along with Brown are seeking regime change in Zimbabwe, and on the part of Tsvangirai, this is treasonous."
When confronting a regime that controls the media and the courts and uses police violence against its citizens, a certain quality of mulish stubbornness would seem to be part of the job description for a Zimbabwe opposition leader. Those who know Morgan Tsvangirai – a former leader of Zimbabwe's mine workers – say that he can be as stubborn as Mugabe himself when told that he can't do something.
But Dumiso Matshazi, a former parliamentary candidate of the Federal Democratic Union, says that the MDC seems unable to recognize that Mugabe continues to use the advantages of state power – such as the police, intelligence services, violent militias, and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission – to stay in power. "We are willing to help Tsvangirai, but how do we get him to the starting point, without using force?"
For their part, MDC insiders argue that while Mugabe has all the powers of the state, the MDC has the upper hand, since voters, and even ZANU-PF members, are fed up with Mugabe.
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.