EU visit widens Zimbabwe split

A top ally of President Robert Mugabe said the European Union 'wants to undermine the inclusive government.' Meanwhile, the opposition party is considering pulling out of the fragile coalition.

This weekend's visit to Zimbabwe by European Union representatives, aimed at bolstering the country's fragile coalition government, may have actually driven the two rival parties farther apart.

Just hours after the EU delegation left – having echoed concerns that President Robert Mugabe had not done enough to share power with his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – a close Mugabe ally launched a verbal attack on the EU, saying they had taken Mr. Tsvangirai's line "hook, line, and sinker."

The EU visit followed another missed opportunity for Zimbabwe, when leaders of the Southern African Development Community last week refused to address the Zimbabwe issue, and instead echoed Mr. Mugabe's call for a lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Now both sides are miffed, and hard-liners in the two rival parties are reportedly calling for the whole coalition government agreement to be called off.

"There is definitely a hardening line in the MDC [Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change], although I think there is a split opinion on whether to pull out of the coalition, or to get extremely tough with Mugabe," says Raymond Louw, editor of the Southern Africa Report in Johannesburg. "I don't think there is an alternative now" to getting tough.

Big risks to scrapping unity government

Pulling out of the coalition carries huge risks, says Mr. Louw.

For Tsvangirai's MDC to abandon the gains of the March 2008 election, including control of parliament and top cabinet positions, would mean demoting the MDC on the international scale from a government party that gets meetings in the White House to just another opposition party that leaves voicemails at the US Embassy in Harare. "If they get out of the coalition now, they are in the wilderness," says Louw.

Diplomacy isn't supposed to work like this.

When top Southern African politicians (including President Jacob Zuma of South Africa) meet to discuss regional problems, as they did last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was an opportunity to push both of Zimbabwe's bickering sides back to the hard work of governing. When European Union diplomats came to Harare, there was a chance to set reasonable goals that both sides had an interest in meeting. But alas, Zimbabwe's political class does not seem to be in a reasonable mood.

Key obstacles remain

The stumbling blocks for this government seem easily solved, at first glance. The MDC wants Mugabe to remove a few key personnel who are intimately associated with the corruption and ineptitude that led to Zimbabwe's economic collapse, most particularly Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono. This weekend, ZANU-PF reinstated Mr. Gono for another term of office.

This led Tsvangirai to vent about Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, at a weekend speech in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo: "For the past seven months we in the MDC have shown respect, conciliation, and understanding to ZANU-PF and what have we got in return? Nothing. They continue to violate the law, persecute our people, spread the language of hate, invade productive farms, ignore our international treaties, and continue to loot of our national resources. This must stop now."

Will sanctions be lifted?

For its part, Mugabe's party has insisted that Tsvangirai should convince the rich donor nations to lift sanctions that were imposed on the top 200 or so members of Mugabe's ruling elite. In a round-the-world journey, Tsvangirai failed to get the sanctions lifted, and failed to get promises of the $10 billion Zimbabwe says it needs to rebuild the country's failing roads, schools, hospitals, and water systems. The EU delegation reminded Mugabe that he still had much to do to improve his country's human rights record and its adherence to the rule of law.

Strong words

With the EU plane barely off the ground, Mugabe's close ally, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa criticized the EU delegation as biased.

"They seem to want to undermine the inclusive government," he told the state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper. "They just swallow line, hook, and sinker what the MDC-T says." MDC-T is the larger faction of the Movement for Democratic Change that follows Tsvangirai.

Even if Tsvangirai's party decides to remain in the coalition government, it could face a huge backlash from its supporters if the current political stalemate continues.

"I think that not only will rural people and impoverished blacks will start to get frustrated with the MDC, but the whites will as well," says Louw. But there is simply no alternative, he says, to getting tough with Mugabe.

"I'm not sure how you do that, except block Mugabe when you can, and maybe make a few public speeches that take on Mugabe," he adds. "[Tsvangirai] is accused of not bringing home the aid money. He can say, 'I can't, because of what you are doing.' That would ignite a few fires around the place."

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