HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s parliament passed a key constitutional amendment today opening the way for a unity government after years of deadly political conflict.
The amendment was passed by acclamation in the assembly dominated — but only just — by the opposition. It creates a prime minister’s post, which main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai will hold in the proposed coalition government. Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, will remain president.
Tsvangirai and the rest of the unity Cabinet will be sworn in next week. The government will bring together members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and a smaller opposition party.
Patrick Chinamasa, a senior aide to Mugabe and the country’s acting justice minister, introduced the amendment, saying he hoped that after a “long and tortuous route” Zimbabwe would no longer have “opposition or governing parties. It will be a new political dispensation.”
Chinamasa’s motion was seconded by Tsvangirai’s top aide, Tendai Biti, who said: “We do hope that ZANU-PF is going to treat us as equal partners.”
Lawmakers shouted “Yes!” when asked if the measure could be passed unanimously, and it was declared so. Chinamasa and Biti then shook hands, while other lawmakers crossed party lines to embrace.
Biti came to the assembly after a morning in court where he is being tried for treason. His case illustrates the difficulties ahead — he is being tried on charges widely derided as trumped up by ZANU-PF. Treason carries the death penalty in Zimbabwe.
The opposition is entering the government warily, saying it has to take the step so that leaders can address the country’s widening humanitarian disaster, with most of the population dependent on international aid. There is also a cholera epidemic blamed on the collapse of the medical and sanitation infrastructure because of a lack of money.
Mugabe is accused of engineering Zimbabwe’s economic crisis through mismanagement and corruption, then ignoring his people’s desire for change as expressed at the ballot box.
Tsvangirai won the most votes in a March presidential election, then dropped out of a runoff against Mugabe because of attacks on his supporters.
Tsvangirai’s party also won control of parliament in March, ZANU-PF’s first defeat since independence. Tsvangirai’s party has 100 seats in parliament, ZANU-PF 99 and the smaller opposition has 10. A former ZANU-PF member who ran as an independent holds one seat.
The opposition has called for a fairer distribution of Cabinet and other government posts after Mugabe unilaterally declared the most powerful positions will be filled by ZANU-PF members. Among the posts still in dispute is the ministry in charge of police, who are accused of attacking opposition supporters.
Mugabe’s party and leaders of neighboring countries have said the opposition should first enter the government, then resolve outstanding issues. The opposition has largely bowed to that, but wants to ensure its concerns are not ignored.
Tsvangirai, a former trade union activist, formed the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. He led it in parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2005 and won 42 percent of votes in the 2002 presidential elections. All three polls were marred by allegations of rigging through violence, intimidation and voting irregularities.
Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts. He was imprisoned for six weeks in 1989 on allegations of spying for South Africa.
In 2003, after an 18-month trial, Tsvangirai was acquitted of treason in a case stemming from an alleged a plot to assassinate Mugabe.
In March 2007, police beat and tortured Tsvangirai during and after his arrest for attending an opposition meeting the government had banned.