JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Hopes for a way forward in Zimbabwe's elections dispute hang on a weekend meeting of the regional Southern African Development Community, after negotiations this week between the ruling party and the opposition failed to seal a deal.
Despite upbeat talk from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the mediator of the talks, South African President Thabo Mbeki, little progress was made on the key issue: the division of power between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The Zimbabwe crisis is expected to take up much of the discussion when southern African government leaders begin their meeting Saturday.
In a sign of increasing disquiet in the group over Zimbabwe's political dispute, Botswana has threatened to boycott the meeting if Mugabe attends as Zimbabwe's president.
During this week's talks in Zimbabwe, negotiators for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, agreed that Mugabe should remain president and retain control of the army, according to opposition sources. But the opposition insisted that his powers be dramatically curtailed, with Tsvangirai making Cabinet appointments and leading the government.
Mugabe wants to appoint the Cabinet and retain government control.
The difference between the two sides relates to Zimbabwe's two recent elections: The opposition says any deal must be based on the March 29 election, seen as relatively free and fair by African and local observers. In that balloting, the ruling party lost control of the parliament and Mugabe won fewer votes for president than Tsvangirai, though the Election Commission found that neither candidate received enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The ruling party bases its claim that Mugabe is the legitimate leader on results of the June 27 runoff, widely criticized as undemocratic by the West and by three teams of African observers. Mugabe ran as the sole candidate after Tsvangirai withdrew amid intensifying violence against his supporters.
Tsvangirai and other MDC officials were briefly detained Thursday, and their passports were confiscated at the airport in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, as they prepared to fly to South Africa.
The opposition leader had been invited to Johannesburg to address southern African leaders this evening at the SADC gathering. The passport was later returned, and he is expected to fly early today.
The incident followed strong criticism of Tsvangirai in the Herald, a pro-government newspaper, for failing to accept Mugabe's terms in the talks. After the passport seizures, the MDC released a statement accusing Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party of not negotiating in good faith.
"ZANU-PF's latest antics show that the regime is not sincere on the dialogue process. The detention is an affront to SADC, to the [African Union] and to the broader international community who are working hard to peacefully resolve Zimbabwe's crisis," the MDC statement said. "Mugabe continues to preach dialogue and to act war."
The failure of the talks leaves Mugabe coping with raging hyperinflation and a severe currency crisis, with money so short that Western Union pays out in gas coupons instead of cash.
The country has no hope of a Western rescue package, reengagement with international financial institutions or credibility among foreign investors without a deal that includes Tsvangirai.
It is highly doubtful that an agreement that sees Mugabe retain significant executive power would win Western support.
A currency crisis arose after a German company recently stopped providing the paper to print new bank notes on, most of which are rendered useless within weeks of release because of hyperinflation.
The country is also facing widespread hunger, with cases of starvation being reported, after Mugabe suspended operations of foreign aid agencies.
Even without Tsvangirai, Mugabe plans to form a government next week, according to the state-owned media.