HARARE, July 27 – A signature, some handshakes and four days of talks have raised hopes for an end to Zimbabwe’s political crisis, but it is uncertain that President Robert Mugabe’s regime will cede power in the end.
With a shattered economy, and regional and international pressure piling up, Zimbabwe’s arch rivals — president Mugabe and opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai — on Monday committed themselves to settlement through dialogue.
"Seeing those two shake hands for the first time in 10 years, I am optimistic something will come out of those talks. Our prayers are being answered," said Rayman Phiri, a Pentecostal church minister in Harare.
The same optimism is shared by Joseph Kurebga, head of political science department at the University of Zimbabwe.
"Overally the mood is very optimistic. People have high hopes for a settlement resolving both the political and economic challenges the country is facing," he said.
But the difficulty of talks on a new political order, which began in earnest Thursday in an undisclosed location in South Africa, could soon emerge as they approach a decisive stage, political analysts in the region said.
"In reality, as far back as 2002-2003, talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC were going on … The most fruitful period of talks took place in 2007 which led to no less than about 18 constitutional amendements," said Chris Maroleng of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria.
"But what had derailed the previous talks was a lack of political will to find an agreement on power-sharing."
Advocates of softly-softly diplomacy, as opposed to those who opted for a more hardline stance to exert pressure on Mugabe, are celebrating.
"This has shown that quiet diplomacy works wonders. It has been effective in persuading both sides to negotiations, nothwithstanding the reservations the MDC had about Mbeki," Kurebga said.
But more outspoken critics of Mugabe have nevertheless kept tighten the screws on his increasingly isolated government, with the European Union and the United States last week broadening sanctions.
Laurence Caromba, an analyst at Pretoria’s Centre for International Policy Studies, draws parallels with the global campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
"Comprehensive trade sanctions against South Africa took many years before their effect was felt in full, but when the South African government finally sat down to negotiate, it was willing to make sweeping concessions rather than piecemeal reforms," Caromba said.
For many, it appears Mugabe has been weakened politically, with his party having lost for the first time in history its parliamentary majority in the March legislative elections.
But nothing so far suggests that Mugabe, 84, in office since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, was ready to share executive power.
Tsvangirai maintains he won the first round of elections on March 29, while Mugabe says his re-election in the June 27 run-off — a one-man affair after the MDC leader withdrew — was non-negotiable.
"There is a real problem because these are entrenched positions. That logjam has to be broken," said Bornwell Chakaodza, media consultant and political commentator in Harare.
"The difficulty remains about the modalities on how the government will be formed, that is the crux of the discussions."
The most widely touted scenario has Mugabe becoming a titular head of state, with Tsvangirai becoming prime minister with executive powers.
But given the stance of powerful security chiefs, who have vowed they will never salute Tsvangirai, it remains doubtful such an arrangement could be feasible.
"My only worry is with the military chiefs. That could be a sticking point," Phiti said.