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Page last updated at 17:39 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 18:39 UK

Is Mugabe losing his grip?

By Farai Sevenzo
Harare

It has finally happened. The impossible has been achieved by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Defaced Robert Mugabe poster
Robert Mugabe's grip on power is under serious threat

For the first time since independence in 1980, Zanu-PF has lost control of Zimbabwe's house of parliament.

But this does not answer all the questions that are preying on Zimbabwean minds.

Actually, one main question - who is their president?

The rumours began shortly after 1800 on Tuesday - the president of the republic would address the nation on television.

Would he concede? Would he hold on for a run-off engineered by the counters at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission?

Those of us without televisions rang the televisually advantaged.

Speculation

But the president did not address the nation, the rumours of his defeat remained just that, rumours, spurred on further by yet another MDC press conference.

"Do you know Mugabe? Do you know him?" said a Zanu-PF insider, "when has anyone ever managed to put him into a corner?"

If there is a run-off, our people will swing it
Simba Makoni ally

But the president's silence has given scope to the kind of speculation on which governments falter.

The military and Zanu-PF insiders are said to be breaking it to him gently that the voters had chosen another path.

There have been no meetings between Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change - that is a pattern of negotiation reserved for fallen armies.

In this case, it is common knowledge that the president despises this "upstart foreign sponsored opposition," and to any casual observer, that he is still the commander-in-chief of a hardened and so far loyal state security apparatus.

To those of us who have been watching these two sides spar, it is impossible to imagine negotiations of that nature between them.

The path on which they have travelled is strewn with bodies, disfigured and dead, with petrol bombings, arrests, torture, militia beatings and complete and total distrust.

When last they talked, under the arbitration of the South Africans, in preparation for these elections, they had failed to agree on so many issues.

An "exit" package, as was widely reported, was not, after all, on the table.

'Enfant terrible'

And so the Zimbabweans, who gathered by their televisions last night, gripped and on tenterhooks, were gathering out of disbelief and a healthy amount of cynicism.

Man pushes sick man to hospital on a cart
The failing economy was the key issue in the elections

In the end, all they got was some more painfully slow announcements of the parliamentary results in the local languages, Ndebele and Shona, and no clear indication about who is leading, who the likely winner is, and absolutely no mention of the presidential poll.

The state-run ZBC news followed, and because of the rumour of a presidential address of some significance, the ratings must have gone through the roof for the first time in decades.

But the news ended and the viewers were numbed by a "drama" of the television variety, real actors and soppy plot.

Where to now? Since Saturday night, Zanu-PF's enfant terrible, "this ungrateful boy" as the president described him - Simba Makoni - has been largely ignored.

As the figures came in it was obvious he had had too little time to prepare despite his massive international coverage, and that his involvement had only succeeded in splitting the Zanu-PF vote.

The real heavyweight contest was between the incumbent and the once bruised challenger Morgan Tsvangirai.

No more.

Enter the new scenario - a run-off for the presidency.

Energy reserve

In this scenario, the new kid on the block, Mr Makoni, is being sweet-talked by government and the opposition to strengthen their grip.

Is that the case?

Woman reading a paper in Harare
Newspaper sales have shot up since the election

I ring up his people, convinced that this is where things are going and speak to an official who tells me repeatedly not to name him.

Things are very sensitive.

Can you confirm that you are talking to either side?

"It's now public knowledge that they are both courting us. The MDC and Zanu-PF have been in closed door talks with us since Monday night. If there is a run-off, our people will swing it."

What does he make of the situation? The delay, the uncertainty?

"Part face-saving gesture, part dented pride. I think his pride has been seriously dented. It is not in the president's DNA to accept defeat."

Does he feel betrayed by you, the Simba Makoni people?

"The irony is that we probably saved him. That 8% - 10% we took in Bulawayo allowed him and Zanu-PF to compete with the MDC in that province. Without us he would have lost outright the whole of Bulawayo."

My township contacts call to say the police are patrolling the township streets again this morning.

This time soldiers in uniform accompany them.

A run-off would mean another three weeks or so of this.

The tension is only just beginning to build.

What is in the 84-year-old's energy reserve tank?

Lesson number one: It is unwise to write him off.



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