ZIMBABWEAN Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said during a recent visit to Australia that although he won the previous presidential election, "there was no transfer of power because President (Robert) Mugabe had the guns, while I had the people". Yet in New Zealand during the same trip, he went on record as saying he was convinced Mr Mugabe is ready to give up power if he loses the next election, to "protect his legacy".

That must have had the not-inconsiderable Zimbabwean diaspora in the Antipodes choking on their sadza. If there is anything that keeps Mr Mugabe from sleeping at night it is certainly not concern over his legacy, which is surely already cast in concrete alongside those of history's other great tyrants.

It does, however, illustrate the difficult position Mr Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) now find themselves in. Since beating Mr Mugabe in the first round of the 2008 election and opting to pull out of the run-off rather than subject the population to another wave of state-sponsored violence, the MDC has settled - maybe too comfortably - into the role of partner in a power-sharing government with Zanu (PF).

This uneasy compromise has been effective in the sense that it resulted in a significant reduction in overt oppression of dissenters by the army and police, the stabilisation of the economy and the taming of rampant inflation, making life for the average Zimbabwean at least bearable again. But it did not resolve the fundamental challenges facing the country and may well have weakened the MDC politically.

When the Apex Council, an umbrella union for public servants, marched on parliament to demand salary increases last week, they targeted Finance Minister Tendai Biti, an MDC representative. Mr Biti has achieved minor miracles with the economy, given the bankrupt shambles he inherited, but he is now the face of the government, a classic example of being landed with all the responsibility without the power required to make the necessary structural and political changes.

Mr Biti has precious little fiscal wriggle room - certainly not enough to meet the public servants' demand for a doubling of their salaries - and there is little prospect of the economy growing rapidly enough for him to get it as long as the political stalemate continues. He has had to slash economic growth forecasts due to poor harvests, inefficient state expenditure and investor nervousness over the Zanu (PF)-sponsored "indigenisation programme". Meanwhile, diamond-mining revenues have slowed to a trickle despite an apparent boom in the industry, which has become a wonderful opportunity for Zanu ( PF) officials to continue the system of patronage that has maintained the status quo for decades.

The draft constitution, which in terms of Zimbabwe's power-sharing agreement must be finalised before new elections are held, includes several positive elements such as a presidential term limit, compensation for farmers deprived of their land during past land grabs, and limitations on presidential power. But the draft still has some way to go before it is adopted, and there are many influential people in the government who will be doing everything in their power to water down those provisions.

The European Union's decision to suspended personal sanctions against most senior Zanu (PF) officials as soon as a referendum is held on the constitution will be of little consequence economically but may prove a further setback for the MDC politically. When elections are eventually held, most likely towards the end of next year, you can be sure Mr Mugabe and his party will declare a famous victory over imperialism in addition to claiming credit for the economic turnaround.