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Last Updated: Monday, 9 June, 2003, 19:32 GMT 20:32 UK
Tough times ahead for Zimbabwe

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC southern Africa correspondent

Robert Mugabe
Mugabe still appears determined to crush the opposition

Zimbabweans are caught in the middle of a stalemate.

Their president, Robert Mugabe, is approaching his 80th birthday, but he remains as cunning and brutal a politician as ever.

And he scorns talk that he might be contemplating retirement.

"It would be nonsensical for me, a year after my election, to resign," he told South African television.

"As long as there is that fight, I am for a fight. I can still punch."

Heavy-handed tactics

Last week the president showed just how determined he is, sending policemen, soldiers and militiamen onto the streets to crush demonstrations by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

We have not yet reached the stage where the people's anger with the regime is equal to their fear of it
Opposition leader
The heavy-handed tactics worked.

Hundreds of MDC supporters were arrested, dozens are recovering in hospital from their injuries, and the mass protests promised by the MDC did not materialise.

As one opposition leader ruefully admitted: "We have not yet reached the stage where the people's anger with the regime is equal to their fear of it."

But the MDC can also draw heart from the events of last week.

It may not be able to bring people out onto the streets in significant numbers, but it can shut down Zimbabwe's economy.

The strikes and stayaways in Harare and Bulawayo were successful.

No amount of government threats, propaganda and force could induce significant amounts of Zimbabweans to turn up for work in the major cities.

Demoralising opposition

So neither side emerged as a clear winner.

Morgan Tsvangirai
It would suit Mugabe to remove Tsvangirai from the political arena

And predicting where Zimbabwe's crisis goes from here is not easy.

President Mugabe's contempt and even hatred for the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is obvious.

The two treason charges against Mr Tsvangirai are an attempt to distract and demoralise the opposition leader.

If convicted, Mr Tsvangirai will face a long spell in prison, or even the death sentence.

It would suit President Mugabe to remove Mr Tsvangirai from the political arena, but he will have to weigh up the danger that a harsh sentence would turn the opposition leader into a hero, or even a martyr.

'Mass action'

For the MDC, the road ahead also has many potential pitfalls.

Zimbabwean man shows wounds inflicted by soldiers in Harare
The people of Zimbabwe are still suffering

In a tacit admission that its tactics during last week's stayaway could have been more effective, the MDC is now saying that future protests will not be advertised in advance.

Instead, "rolling mass action" will take place across the country, with demonstrations being planned in secret, so that the security forces do not have time to prepare.

Regional governments, and in particular, the South Africans, continue to pin their hope on negotiations between Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF Party and the MDC.

But it is hard to see how these can get off the ground in the current climate.

President Mugabe's condition for going into talks, that the MDC recognise his victory in last year's disputed presidential election, is unacceptable to the opposition.

And all the time, Zimbabwe's economic slide continues, and the hardships suffered by its impoverished people are increasing.

"It is always darkest before the dawn," goes the old saying.

Zimbabweans will be wondering how much darker it can get.


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