Zimbabwe's president emerged from daylong negotiations late Wednesday to say he hoped to sign a power-sharing deal with the opposition today, and his main rival also said an agreement was close.
The key stumbling block in talks has been how power would be apportioned between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, men from different generations who hold sharply opposing perspectives on the challenges facing Zimbabwe.
Both men spoke briefly to reporters after more than 11 hours of talks mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.
“Hopefully a deal will be signed tomorrow,” Mugabe said.
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Tsvangirai said there was “very little work left” to do, but he did not elaborate on what that entailed. He said the two leaders would meet again this afternoon, after Mbeki was expected to brief other regional leaders on progress in the talks.
Tsvangirai's party won the most votes in legislative and presidential elections in March. Mugabe subsequently was the only candidate in a presidential runoff that followed an onslaught of state-sponsored violence against Tsvangirai's supporters and was denounced as a sham.
Since then, Mugabe has faced pressure to reach a deal with the opposition as the only way of breaking the political deadlock that has brought this once relatively prosperous African nation to a standstill.
Tsvangirai, a 56-year-old former union leader, insisted on being head of government and presiding over Cabinet meetings, with Mugabe holding a largely ceremonial position of head of state.
The sharp-tongued, 84-year-old Mugabe was unwilling to surrender much of the power he had wielded since leading an insurgency against a white-minority government that won independence from Britain in 1980.
Much of Mugabe's popularity at home and across the continent is linked to his image as a proud African leader unafraid to defy the West. Tsvangirai, who lacks Mugabe's anti-colonial credentials, has said Zimbabwe needs to work with the West to overcome its economic and political crises.
A political settlement will free the leaders to address the world's highest inflation rate and chronic food and fuel shortages. Foreign investors have been wary because of the political uncertainty. Western governments are poised to help, but they will not deal with Mugabe.