THERE was a fly-past of jets as usual and the familiar 21 gun salute - but almost everything else was different at the official opening of the Zimbabwean parliament. Robert Mugabe has performed this ceremony since 1980 but never before has he been heckled and jeered as he was yesterday by the triumphant MPs of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who had emerged the previous day as the majority party, able to appoint the Speaker of the Parliament for the first time. With the power-sharing talks moderated by South Africa's Thabo Mbeki once more stalled, this dramatic shift of power in parliament may be just the jolt that Mugabe and his supporters need to realise that their days are numbered and that compromises must be made.
Mugabe's claim in his speech that a landmark agreement on shared government with Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC's leader, was close was greeted with rowdy disdain by the MDC's MPs.
Its majority in the Zimbabwean parliament does not give the MDC the power it would have in most other countries because Mugabe has systematically given his executive presidency the power to rule by edict and through the Army and Police. Nonetheless much of the repressive legislation introduced in the past can be reviewed and amended and Mugabe has lost the 75 per cent majority needed to revise the Constitution.
Psychologically, President Mugabe has been dealt a severe blow - the first setback to the almost absolute power he has wielded for nearly thirty years.