Johannesburg, South Africa - It took 10 months of international mediation and arm-twisting, but Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party agreed Friday to join in a power-sharing government with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.
The decision to share-power came after the 2008 national elections gave Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC control of parliament, and Tsvangirai himself a substantial lead in the presidential race against Mr. Mugabe, although short of the 50 percent majority required to avoid a runoff.
In September, Tsvangirai agreed in principle to a power-sharing agreement, but objected to Mugabe's subsequent decision to keep all the major ministries for his own party, including finance, defense, and foreign affairs.
Tsvangirai to control the police
Under the agreement reached this week, brokered by South African president Motlanthe, Mugabe and Tsvangirai have agreed to share control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which includes Zimbabwe's often brutal police.
"We are committed to joining the government of national unity and hope that (Mugabe party officials) are going to treat us as equal partners," Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare, Zimbabwe, after a meeting of the MDC's national council voted Friday to join the government with Mugabe.
The decision comes as patience was wearing thin, both from international mediators and from Zimbabwean citizens themselves. The past 10 months of political stalemate – in which Zimbabwe had, in effect, no legal government – have been marked by a slew of problems demanding immediate attention, including economic collapse, hyper-inflation, increasing hunger, and more recently, an outbreak of cholera.
For the coming coalition government to make any headway, it will have to overcome mutual animosity and a history of the Mugabe government using violence against Tsvangirai's party members. In just the past three months, the MDC says that more than two dozen of its party members have been abducted and tortured.
What brought these two foes together now?
"There's been a shift in SADC (the Southern African Development Community, which sponsored the power-sharing negotiations), and pressure has been shifting from Mugabe to Tsvangirai," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "So the more the stalemate continues, the more that Tsvangirai is seen as obstructionist, the greater the divisions will become within the MDC. The MDC may have felt like their time was running out."
The MDC will be taking huge risks in joining a government with Mugabe. The octogenarian leader of the ruling ZANU-PF has a long history of absorbing his enemies into his party, after a campaign of intimidation and violence.
Joshua Nkomo, the leader of a rival liberation party called ZAPU, for instance, joined ZANU-PF in 1987, but only after a four-year counter insurgency campaign in Nkomo's home territory of Matabeleland, in which ZANU forces killed some 20,000 Zimbabweans, most of them civilians. Once inside the ZANU-PF, Mr. Nkomo and his supporters were sidelined and politically neutralized.
Perhaps to minimize the chance of a similar strategy against Tsvangirai's MDC, the two parties agreed on Friday to set up a joint committee to monitor the power-sharing agreement.
"Let us make no mistake, by joining an inclusive government, we are not saying that this is a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis, instead our participation signifies that we have chosen to continue the struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe in a new arena," Tsvangirai said in a statment.
"This agreement is a significant milestone on our journey to democracy but it does not signify that we have arrived at our destination – we are committed to establishing a democratic Zimbabwe regardless of how long that struggle takes us."