Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has said his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has "disengaged" from the power-sharing government with President Mugabe. The move came after Mugabe's police arrested a top member of Mr. Tsvangirai's inner circle.
Addressing a press conference in Harare on Friday, Tsvangirai stopped short of withdrawing his party from government, but said his party would boycott all future meetings with Mugabe's ZANU PF party until outstanding issues were resolved. He also accused ZANU PF of deliberately provoking a crisis for the eight-month-old inclusive government.
"In this regard, whilst being government, we shall forthwith disengage from ZANU PF and in particular from Cabinet and the Council of Ministers until such time as confidence and respect is restored amongst us," said Tsvangirai.
The MDC boycott marks a potential turning point in the unlikely coalition between two bitter enemies, Tsvangirai and Mugabe, who formed a unity government in February after an 11-month standoff that followed the March 2008 elections. Tsvangirai's MDC won control of parliament, but Mugabe's steadfast refusal to concede defeat then – or to cede authority to his coalition partners now – has remained a dangerous stumbling block for the Zimbabwe government, and has stalled its ability to put the country on a path to recovery.
In some ways, Tsvangirai's boycott of cabinet meetings might seem to be a dream come true to Mugabe and his colleagues, who never wanted MDC in government anyway. But political analysts say Tsvangirai's strategy is to stop pretending that the current arrangement is working, and to force regional African leaders and the international community to put pressure on Mugabe to start abiding by its promises.
Washington Katema, a fellow with the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in Zimbabwe, said the MDC will not pull out of the unity government which has brought relief to ordinary Zimbabweans.
"This is meant to ratchet up local and international pressure on Mugabe so that he can address the outstanding issues," Mr. Katema said. "The political cost of MDC withdrawal would be too ghastly to contemplate."
The latest tension was triggered by the detention of Roy Bennett, the minister of agriculture and Mugabe foe who was ordered to prison Oct. 15 to face trial on eight-month-old charges of terrorism, insurgency, sabotage, and banditry. But Bennett was granted bail on Friday.
Katema said the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), who are the guarantors of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), will not allow the collapse of the unity government.
"You will see in the next few days that there will be a lot of diplomatic shuttling in the region," said Katema. "SADC and AU will work hard to ensure the two [Mugabe and Tsvangirai] reach a common position."
Political analyst Takura Zhangazha also believes that the MDC will not pull out of the unity government. "They will not pull out completely. This is designed to strengthen their negotiating position and draw the attention of SADC."
Zhangazha, also the director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe), said SADC was likely to refer the issue to its Organ on Politics, Defense and Security.
"It [the organ] will emphasize that Zimbabwe should solve their problem amicably. The emphases will be the same: try to respect each other, try to solve the outstanding issues and so on," said Zhangazha.
But the announcement that the MDC will disengage could play into the hands of ZANU PF hard-liners who are determined to see the unity government collapse.
But Tsvangirai said, "We are not playing in anyone's hands. If that's what they want, they got it, but Mugabe cannot run a government alone constitutionally and legally."
Tsvangirai said the detention of Bennett has worsened the friction in the inclusive government.
"The present arrest and detention of our party treasurer Roy Bennett has brought home the fiction of the credibility and integrity of the transitional government," he said.
He said ZANU PF views the MDC as a junior partner in the transition arrangement.
"It has brought home the reality that as a movement we have an unreliable and unrepentant partner in the transitional government. It has brought home the self-evident fact that ZANU PF sees us as a junior, fickle, and unserious movement," the MDC leader said.
He said there was total abuse and disrespect of the GPA. He added that ministerial mandates have been changed unilaterally; government internal rules have not been changed to recognize the new reality.
The MDC leader said over and above this that some government agencies, in particular a few components in the National Security forces, still behave as if the old order exists.
The National Security Council itself has met only once in nine months. Apart from that, Tsvangirai said, over 16,000 ZANU PF youth militia have been put on government payroll.
"We are also aware of the extensive militarization of the countryside through massive deployment of the military and the setting up of bases of violence that we saw after the 29th of March 2008," he said. "In addition, we have seen the continuous selective and unequal application of the rule of law. Seven MDC MPs have been persecuted and convicted on shadowy charges whilst several others are on remand."
Since the unity government was formed, ZANU PF has demanded that the MDC do more to get international sanctions lifted and restore foreign aid and investment.
The MDC has also condemned continuing human rights violations.