Opposition Party's Split Widens in Zimbabwe

Arthur Mutambara speaks Feb. 25, after being elected president of the pro Senate faction of the M.D.C. in Bulawayo. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

A faction of Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) party approved the entry of former student leader Arthur Mutambara in the battle for the presidency of the party during the Feb. 25 second congress of the opposition.

Another faction led by sitting party president Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to hold its parallel congress mid March, widely seen by many as the time to formalize the split of the six year-old party that at one time came close to toppling President Robert G. Mugabe.

Mutambara, a robotics fellow at the University of Florida in the U.S., battled it out with deputy secretary general Gift Chimanikire who openly declared his interest for the post.

As the anti-Tsvangirai faction geared toward its congress, a rift emerged among faction leaders with Chimanikire opposing Mutambara's candidacy. Sources in the faction revealed that Chimanikire argued that it was unfair for Mutambara to come "at the eleventh hour" and vie for the presidency of the labor-backed M.D.C., having spent most of his time studying outside Zimbabwe while others were facing the harshness of President Mugabe's administration.

But Mutambara was upbeat about his entry into Zimbabwean national politics, especially at a time when the M.D.C. faces total collapse as a result of the emerging split.

"As the party goes towards two separate congresses, the infusion of new leadership, untainted by current disagreements, is imperative to facilitate the reunification process.

''It is in this context that I define the framework of my entry into Zimbabwean politics. As a member of the M.D.C., I am prepared to work with anybody who shares the above terms of reference," Mutambara said.

Mutambara was elected president of the pro Senate faction of the M.D.C. on Feb. 25.

Tsvangirai fell out with his lieutenants last year when he overruled the vote of the M.D.C.'s National Council — the party's supreme decision making body between congresses — that favored participation in a Senate election won convincingly by President Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

Tsvangirai used the party's constitution to justify this boycott saying the policy document does not allow the National Council to vote on matters of principle, such as participation in a Senate poll that he described as "an expensive and unnecessary ZANU-PF project."

The pro Senate faction ran candidates anyway but lost heavily to the ZANU-PF. The split caused by the Senate election has led to other battles for control of the assets and properties of the M.D.C. and culminated in separate party congresses. The M.D.C. was formed in 1999, having grown out of labor action and extra-parliamentary struggles.

As the power struggles in the M.D.C. continue, political analyst Gorden Moyo says President Mugabe's administration cannot be removed from office by a divided opposition.

"Mugabe is taking advantage of the split in the opposition and what he hates to see is a united opposition because it threatens his hold on power. What is now needed is for the feuding factions of the M.D.C. to bury their hatchet and join forces with other opposition parties and civic society groups in order to remove Mugabe. That is all what Zimbabweans are crying for today," said Moyo.

President Mugabe, 82, came to power after independence from Britain in 1980. He has hinted that he might retire in 2008 when his current term of office expires.

The head of state has told his party members to position themselves peacefully to take over from him in 2008, but warned that the transition period should be done in accordance with the constitution.

Frank Chikowore is a Harare-based independent journalist and formerly a senior reporter with the now-defunct Weekly Times newspaper. He also writes for several online newspapers and corresponds for a number of international radio stations.