- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe | Citing the “persecution” of a top aide, Zimbabwe’s prime minister abandoned - at least temporarily - shared rule with President Robert Mugabe, marking a setback to the country’s struggle to emerge from political gridlock, economic collapse and international isolation and sanctions.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai told reporters on Friday his party members would not attend Cabinet meetings or engage in other executive work with Mr. Mugabe’s party. His erstwhile governing partners said good riddance, even though both sides need the coalition.

“Until confidence has been restored we can’t continue to pretend that everything is well,” Mr. Tsvangirai said, referring to a trial scheduled to begin Monday against Roy Bennett, the prime minister’s nominee for deputy agriculture minister who is charged with weapons violations. The charges are linked to long-discredited allegations that Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) plotted Mr. Mugabe’s violent overthrow.

“We are not really pulling out officially,” Mr. Tsvangirai said, assuring a press conference that his move did not spell the collapse of the government, but making clear his party members would not attend Cabinet meetings or engage in other executive work with Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. The MDC will continue parliament activities.

Friday’s move demonstrates deep unhappiness within the MDC with the coalition. But Mr. Tsvangirai has repeatedly said he sees the coalition as the only way to ensure Zimbabwe’s future.

The indifferent reaction from ZANU-PF underlined tensions within the coalition.

“If MDC wants to disengage … we don’t have a problem with that,” said Ephraim Masawi, a ZANU-PF spokesman. “We were having problems with MDC, working together. We have been trying but it was not easy.”

Mr. Tsvangirai and Mr. Mugabe entered the unity government in February after two violence-plagued elections left the country at a political standstill and in economic ruin.

Zimbabwe’s neighbors had urged Mr. Mugabe, who has held power since independence in 1980, to form the partnership with Mr. Tsvangirai, a former labor leader. In forming their coalition, the longtime opponents pledged to work together to turn around the country’s economic and political collapse.

Since the coalition was formed, Mr. Tsvangirai has condemned continuing human rights violations. Mr. Mugabe has demanded that Mr. Tsvangirai do more to get international sanctions lifted and foreign aid and investment restored.

Mr. Tsvangirai had nominated Mr. Bennett as deputy agriculture minister in the coalition. Mr. Bennett was arrested the day the Cabinet was sworn in February. He denies the charges against him. Mr. Bennett had been free on bail since March, but that was revoked earlier this week.

“Roy Bennett is not being prosecuted, he is being persecuted,” Mr. Tsvangirai said.

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