Mugabe’s camp suggested the meeting of southern African leaders called for Jan. 26 looked doomed after the ruling ZANU-PF and opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai failed to reach agreement at talks brokered by regional leaders on Monday.
"Efforts to finalise the broad-based agreement appeared to have irretrievably collapsed," the government’s Herald newspaper said. It said Tsvangirai’s party had rejected regional proposals "that would have seen an inclusive government being formed by the end of the week."
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change is equally pessimistic. The rivals blame each other for the failure to implement a September power-sharing pact that had raised hopes of rescuing Zimbabwe from economic collapse.
Lovemore Madhuku, a lawyer and chairman of constitution reform lobby group NCA, said it appeared increasingly unlikely that Mugabe and Tsvangirai could work together.
"There is a crisis of confidence arising from Tsvangirai’s belief that Mugabe wants to trap his MDC party in order to tame it, ease pressure on his government, get some international legitimacy and then absorb or destroy the MDC," he told Reuters.
"On the other hand, Mugabe seems to truly believe that Tsvangirai is a Western puppet holding out for an economic meltdown that may lead to a mass uprising and a fall of his government."
The dispute has centred on who gets which posts in a shared government but is as much as anything about the lack of trust.
"The SADC (Southern African Development Community) is not going to succeed in Zimbabwe if they do not change their strategy," said Elinor Sisulu, head of the South African branch of the Crisis for Zimbabwe Coalition.
She said that instead of focusing only on the deal, regional leaders should look at violence in Zimbabwe, where the MDC accuses the government of attacks, and at ZANU-PF accusations the opposition is preparing an insurgency from Botswana.
If there is no agreement, Mugabe has said he would proceed in appointing a purely ZANU-PF cabinet.
But its work will be difficult in a parliament dominated by the opposition since elections last March.
Tsvangirai also won a presidential ballot then, but without enough votes to avoid a run-off against Mugabe. He pulled out of that citing attacks on his supporters.
Without a political settlement, Zimbabwe is unlikely to get financial aid crucial to reviving the battered economy. Nor will it be able to persuade Western powers to lift sanctions imposed on Mugabe’s government.
Aid agencies are already struggling to cope with food shortages and a cholera epidemic that has killed over 2,100 people.
"The future can only be secured if the politicians sort out the political issues, and then we can expect assistance to repair the damage of disastrous policies and to grow the economy," said leading economic consultant John Robertson.
Others say Zimbabwe’s economic problems — which include food, fuel and foreign currency shortages, unemployment of 80 percent and the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 230 million percent — can only get worse with the impasse.
Mugabe, who will be 85 next month and has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, says Zimbabwe’s once prosperous economy has been sabotaged by enemies opposed to his seizures of white-owned farms for blacks.
"It is not clear, in terms of strategy, where both the MDC and ZANU-PF want to go outside the power-sharing framework, but its very clear that the economy will be doomed without it," said Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political science professor.