JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe's military has taken day-to-day control of key elements of the national government, limiting the authority of President Robert Mugabe as he struggles to maintain power after 28 years, according to senior government sources, Western diplomats, and analysts.
Mugabe's clout has diminished as military forces deploy widely across Zimbabwe's countryside and in government agencies. Among those agencies is the electoral commission, which has refused to release results from the March 29 election and would manage a runoff vote, if one is scheduled.
The sources said decision-making increasingly has been consolidated within the Joint Operations Command, a shadowy group consisting of the leaders of the army, air force, police, intelligence agency, and prison service - a group of officials Zimbabweans call the "securocrats."
Although those officials have been powerful for a long time, their authority in government and political matters grew sharply in the days after the election, when it became clear that Mugabe had lost a first round of balloting to longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Several of the security officials, whose ties to Mugabe date to Zimbabwe's liberation war in the 1970s, had publicly vowed before the vote never to take orders from Tsvangirai, a former trade union official with no military background.
The shift in power is "an interim measure that is meant to stabilize the country at this critical moment," said a Mugabe confidant, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The arrangement is just temporary because once he wins [a runoff vote], as the army expects him to, he will be back in charge."
Zimbabwe's political crisis has shown no sign of abating since the election 17 days ago. All sides have agreed that Mugabe received fewer votes than Tsvangirai, but they disagree as to whether the opposition candidate won the clear majority needed for a decisive first- round victory.
The opposition party, which asserts that their leader won enough votes to become president, has tried various tactics to oust Mugabe from office. It sued unsuccessfully to force release of the results. It embraced a runoff, announced a boycott of it, then reversed again and said it would take part under certain conditions. Yesterday, party members called a general strike only to see it fizzle.
Regional diplomatic efforts, including quiet negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition, have failed so far. There are no official election results, no date for a runoff, and no clear path for resolving the crisis. That has made questions about who is in charge now all the more pressing. The constitutional mandate for Parliament and Mugabe's Cabinet expired at the end of March.
Opposition leaders have claimed for several days that the military has quietly taken control of the government. "It's a coup in the guise of an election," said opposition lawmaker David Coltart, who is part of a breakaway faction that is not linked to Tsvangirai.
Mugabe's security minister, Didymus Mutasa, disputed Coltart's description, saying, "President Mugabe is still in charge, and that is a fact. Those people who are telling you that are wishing for bad things for this country. Wait until the runoff. We will beat them overwhelmingly, and then they will shut up."
Yet a Zimbabwean general, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described a meeting between top military officers and Mugabe last week in Murombedzi, about 55 miles southwest of Harare, the capital. After declaring to the president that they were in charge, the officers laid out a plan by which he would participate in a runoff vote in conditions made far more favorable by military control of polling stations and central counting centers, the general said.
He added that the military has assigned two senior officers to oversee each of Zimbabwe's dozens of local government districts. Their job, the general said, is to coordinate political violence by a variety of ruling party groups that attack opposition supporters.
At least two people have died since the election. Dozens of others have been beaten, whipped, and threatened by ruling party youth militias, opposition activists say. Veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war have occupied many of the remaining white-owned commercial farms. As police checkpoints on Zimbabwe's highways have proliferated, military policemen or officers of Mugabe's secret police have begun monitoring them.
Such harsh tactics were common in previous elections, especially in 2000 and 2002; this year's vote was generally regarded as less violent. The following day, results were posted at individual polling stations, which allowed both the opposition and independent monitors to compile tallies showing the extent of Mugabe's loss.