JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Zimbabwe's ruling party agreed to modest democratic reforms yesterday ahead of national elections, including slashing the presidential term by a year, ending presidential appointment of legislators and expanding the lower house of parliament.
The reform package, however, left intact the sweeping powers wielded by President Robert G. Mugabe, and failed to address the southern African nation's flawed electoral rolls, less than six months before national elections are to be held.
Although some analysts hailed the accord between the ruling ZANU-PF party and two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as an important step toward strengthening democracy in Zimbabwe, others viewed it as a cynical concession by a ruling party that is confident it can beat a fractured opposition in March elections.
The deal also was seen as a bid by Mugabe's regime to win greater credibility for its electoral procedures as it seeks a regional rescue package for its collapsing economy.
"It's a very major development in terms of African solutions for African problems," government spokesman George Charamba said in a telephone interview. He said the reforms answer "all these claims made, especially by the Western media, that the negotiations between ZANU-PF and the MDC are going nowhere. ... Now that there is this working relationship between the two parties, it is interesting to see how this whole argument justifying sanctions will go. I'd really like to see how they would justify that."
The agreement came as the International Crisis Group called on the West to drop travel bans and an asset freeze imposed on Zimbabwe's elite, and suggested Mugabe and other leaders be offered immunity from prosecution as a way out of the country's economic and political crisis.
Mugabe and his allies are believed to fear charges in connection with the massacres of thousands by government security forces in Matebeleland in the 1980s. A report by the Roman Catholic Church estimated that about 20,000 were killed.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was arrested last year and became the first former African leader to face an international tribunal on war-crime charges over his alleged role in Sierra Leone's civil war. He had been in exile in Nigeria since relinquishing power in 2003.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the former British colony, then known as Rhodesia, won independence in 1980 after a liberation war that had made him an enduring hero in many parts of Southern Africa. Human rights abuses and the country's decline from one of the region's wealthiest nations to one of its poorest since have damaged his legacy.
The International Monetary Fund has predicted hyperinflation, now more than 7,500 percent annually, could reach 100,000 percent by the end of the year.
Jonathon Moyo, a former ZANU-PF Minister who was sacked by Mugabe for alleged disloyalty, said that while the government appears confident of victory in March, it is increasingly panicked at economic chaos sparked by its price-control policies.
"This is an acknowledgment by the ruling party and by the president that there's a crisis that needs to be resolved," Moyo said. "There is a crisis which has reached boiling point and left everyone, the ruling party included, in uncharted waters, and there is desperate search for a way out. There are 1,000 miles to walk, and this is the first step in the first mile."
To obtain the reform package, which also included restrictions on the president's power to draw electoral boundaries, the opposition agreed to a government plan to let parliament choose Mugabe's successor upon his retirement or death.
Mugabe increasingly relies on a narrow group of security and military chiefs for backing, as support in the broader ruling party falters over concerns about the country's economic chaos.
A spokesman for the smaller of the two MDC factions, Welshman Ncube, said in a telephone interview that the opposition continued to seek more sweeping constitutional and electoral change before the March elections. There have been reports the government is willing to give ground on these issues as well.
Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.