HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s parliament will delay debate on a law to form a unity government, a senior opposition official said on Wednesday, a setback that could further prolong a political and damaging economic crisis.
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai last week agreed to join a unity government with President Robert Mugabe after months of wrangling over cabinet posts had stalled a power-sharing deal signed last year.
Parliament was expected to start debating constitutional changes to create a prime minister post for Tsvangirai on Wednesday, but a fresh dispute erupted this week, with the MDC accusing Mugabe’s ZANU-PF of backtracking on the unity deal.
MDC chief whip Innocent Gonese told Reuters the rival parties’ negotiators would meet in South Africa on Wednesday to try to settle outstanding matters.
“There will be a delay. As you will recall, in terms of the SADC communique, negotiators were supposed to meet immediately afterwards to iron out the remaining issues on national security legislation and a formula on allocating provincial governors.”
“I believe that meeting will happen today. It is only after that that the bill will be brought to parliament. I do not know when exactly,” Gonese said.
Regional Southern Africa Development Community leaders met last week to persuade Zimbabwe’s rival parties to break the deadlock. They called for a unity government to be in place by February 13.
The new government is seen as crucial to rescue Zimbabwe’s economy from collapse.
The once-prosperous southern African country’s economy is in ruins, with half the population needing food aid. Official inflation, last recorded in mid-2008, had soared to 231 million percent and the United Nations says unemployment is 94 percent.
The continent’s deadliest cholera epidemic in 15 years has infected 65,739 people, killing 3,323.
State media quoted Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa as saying the constitutional bill would be delayed.
“We have to deal with the outstanding issues, so we cannot proceed with the passing of amendment number 19 on the given date,” Chinamasa told the state-controlled Chronicle newspaper.
Tsvangirai has demanded that several rights and political activists held in detention should be released before February 11.
On Wednesday a High Court judge dismissed a bail application by leading rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko. She and dozens of activists were charged with recruiting or attempting to recruit people to overthrow the government. They deny the charges.
Tsvangirai’s MDC holds 100 seats in the lower house of parliament, while ZANU-PF has 99 seats. A splinter MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara controls 10 seats and an independent one. Constitutional changes require two-thirds majority support.