Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai Gambles on Boycott from Government

Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai Gambles on Boycott from Government

The decision by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to suspend participation in
Zimbabwe’s unity government with President Robert Mugabe simply confirms
what has been obvious for some time: the power-sharing deal intended to
bring an end to the country’s crippling political crisis is on life support,
if not already dead.

Tsvangirai’s move on Oct. 16 was prompted by the re-arrest of a prominent member
of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change , which continues to suffer
harassment despite the power-sharing agreement. Tsvangirai said it was plain
that Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwean African National Union , had no
intention of relinquishing control and forming a functioning government. “It
is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner,”
Tsvangirai said in Harare. “We have papered over the cracks and have sought
to persuade the whole world in the last eight months that everything is
working. Now is time for us to assert and take our position as the dominant
party in Zimbabwe. We are guided by the fact that we are the trustees of the
people’s mandate and therefore the only one with the mandate to remain in

This would be logical, and wise, in a democracy. And sticking to principles
is also important, as Tsvangirai says, because fighting dirty usually
ensures that one dictator will merely be replaced by another. But this is
Zimbabwe, where a ruthless authoritarian government has driven the country
into financial ruin and suppressed its political opponents through a
campaign of violence and terror. Playing by the rules when your opponent
does not can seem hopelessly naive.

This is Tsvangirai’s dilemma, the same dilemma facing anyone attempting to
engage with dictators around the world. The task Tsvangirai has set for
himself — easing out the 85-year-old tyrant without resorting to bad behavior
himself — is far harder than Mugabe’s goal of staying in power by whatever
means necessary. Because of this, Tsvangirai can often seem like he is
stumbling in comparison. For example, when he says that popular support
equals political dominance, he sounds like he’s not facing up to
reality — talking about the way things should be in Zimbabwe rather than what
they are. Power in the country comes from guns and soldiers, as Mugabe
demonstrated when he unleashed his security forces on MDC supporters after
his party lost the March 2008 general election, killing scores.

To boycott the unity government now calls into question Tsvangirai’s
decision to enter into the arrangement in the first place. Since the deal
was signed, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have spared no effort to sabotage it. The
party has stymied the formation of a government by introducing endless
procedural objections and by simply not turning up to meetings. Growing MDC
impatience finally boiled over on Oct. 15 with the re-arrest of Roy
Bennett, the party’s treasurer and a white farmer, on charges of possessing
weapons with the intention to commit sabotage, banditry and insurgency. But
even here, Tsvangirai’s actions have raised eyebrows. His decision to
suspend participation in the government over Bennett’s detention may have
seemed robustly principled on Friday, but a day later, it appeared to be
somewhat premature when Bennett was granted bail.

Most significant, for all of his protestations about the other side’s lack
of integrity and his vows to govern alone, Tsvangirai has, in the end, given
Mugabe exactly what he wants — sole power over the government again. As this
has been Mugabe’s aim all along, Tsvangirai’s move is undeniably
self-defeating. Karin Alexander, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for
Democracy in Africa in Pretoria, says the MDC is giving Mugabe the
opportunity to cast it as the spoiler of the peace deal. She adds, however,
that the move might be seen as a tactic to impel Zimbabwe’s neighbors to
demand that ZANU-PF finally respect the terms of the power-sharing deal.
Tsvangirai has set up meetings this week with the leaders of Mozambique and
Congo to urge them to put pressure on Mugabe. “The effectiveness of the
decision to enter into a ‘symbolic’ boycott will be determined by the
strategies, if any, that the MDC has put in place to leverage real change
from this public expression of dissatisfaction,” Alexander says.

Even if the MDC does have a strategy in place, it may have drawn itself into
a corner. “This is a period of confusion. There is too much heat emanating
from the frustration the MDC has gone through,” says Tendai Nyamutatanga, a
political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. “But what will happen if
ZANU-PF sticks to its guns The MDC might be doomed.” Ominously, when asked
to comment on the MDC’s move, Mugabe’s party could not have appeared less
concerned. Initially, ZANU-PF claimed to not have heard about it. Then party
leaders said they didn’t care. Mugabe spokesman George Charamba told the
Sunday Mail in Harare that rather than worrying about contortions inside the
MDC, Mugabe was spending his time arranging scholarships for students and
welcoming soccer players in Zimbabwe for a regional tournament. “As for this
needless excitement from [Tsvangirai’s party], I suppose the President will
find time [to deal with it], when the right time comes,” Charamba said.

— With reporting by a TIME correspondent / Harare

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