Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is expected to arrive soon in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in a bid to salvage a power-sharing deal that is in danger of collapsing a month after it was signed.
The deal brokered by Mbeki - appointed as mediator by the South African Development Community (SADC) in 2007 - was hailed as a way out of the beleaguered country's political and economic morass, but within days of being signed on 15 September it began to run into obstacles.
President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have failed to agree on the allocation of cabinet portfolios and Mugabe unilaterally apportioned ministries at the end of last week, which the MDC subsequently rejected.
The two factions of the MDC - a larger one led by Morgan Tsvangirai and a breakaway faction led by Arthur Mutambara - met with Mugabe on 10 October and agreed the deal had deadlocked, and that Mbeki should be called in to resolve the impasse.
However, after the meeting Mugabe issued a government gazette announcing the cabinet posts, which have been distributed to ensure that ZANU-PF controls the key portfolios of defence, home affairs, foreign affairs, local government, justice and legal affairs, mines and agriculture, media and information, and women and youth affairs.
On 13 October Mugabe also swore in two vice presidents.
ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980 to the MDC and Tsvangirai was a couple of percentage points shy of claiming the presidency in the March 2008 elections. A run-off presidential election, which Mugabe won after Tsvangirai withdrew on the grounds that his supporters were being physically attacked and even killed, was dismissed as flawed by the international community.
According to the power-sharing deal, Mugabe retains the presidency and Tsvangirai is appointed as prime minister, but Tsvangirai has yet to be sworn in.
Tsvangirai's MDC were given ministries viewed as minor, such as economic planning, energy, health and child welfare, public service, social welfare, sport, arts and culture, water resources and national housing. Mutambara's MDC were handed three ministries: international cooperation, education, and industry and commerce. Mugabe did not allocate the finance portfolio.
|Some ministries are not negotiable. If Mugabe wants to take defence, then we take home affairs. If the marriage has irreconcilable differences then it is not unusual for divorce proceedings to begin. But we remain committed to the talks|
Zimbabwe's official annual inflation rate is estimated at 231 million percent and the country is suffering acute shortages of food, water, foreign currency and electricity. The UN estimates that more than five million people - nearly half the population - will require food assistance in the first quarter of 2009.
The MDC said in statement that the party that had been trying to secure the ministries of finance, justice and legal affairs, economic planning, media and information, home affairs, foreign affairs, local government, women, gender and community development.
At an MDC rally in Harare on 12 October, attended by about 10,000 people, Tsvangirai conceded that the month-old deal was looking precarious.
"Some ministries are not negotiable. If Mugabe wants to take defence, then we take home affairs. If the marriage has irreconcilable differences then it is not unusual for divorce proceedings to begin. But we remain committed to the talks; if the talks collapse then it will be ZANU-PF which will cause that collapse."
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told IRIN that "The cabinet deadlock calls for urgent help and assistance from SADC, and the AU as the guarantors of the deal to unfreeze the impasse. MDC is concerned with the prolonged and protracted dialogue, considering that people are dying of hunger, factories remain closed, while school calendars have been disrupted and there are disease outbreaks."
European Union condemns 'power grab'
The European Union meeting of 27 foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 13 October condemned "the unilateral decision to form a new government which has not been agreed by all parties" in a statement, and has threatened more sanctions.
The sanctions imposed by the EU target about 170 of the country's ruling elite, as well as Mugabe and his second wife, Grace, and include a travel ban and the freezing of assets. Despite calls for sanctions to be lifted after the power-sharing deal was signed, the EU has adopted a wait-and-see approach.
"I think it is very important that a European signal goes out that we will have no part, and play no part, in supporting a power grab by the Mugabe regime," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters at the meeting.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions