Harare — DESPITE attempts to co-opt members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), President Robert Mugabe suffered a decisive defeat in parliament yesterday when the MDC's Lovemore Moyo was elected speaker in a secret ballot.
The landmark victory for the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, marked the beginning of the end of Mugabe's 28-year reign.
It also raised questions about the viability of a Zanu (PF) coalition with Arthur Mutambara - the leader of the smaller, breakaway MDC faction.
Yesterday two MDC MPs were arrested and another threatened, raising tension as Mugabe was to open parliament today .
In a hung parliament, the speaker plays a central role and could take charge of controversial debates, if no power-sharing deal is agreed between Mugabe and the two MDC factions. The speaker can also act as president in the absence of the vice-president or senate president.
The parliamentary snub triggered a dramatic collapse of Mugabe's strategy to regain control and establish a working majority in parliament. His bid to form a new government after the power-sharing talks between Zanu (PF) and the two MDC factions stalled recently after Tsvangirai refused to serve as prime minister under Mugabe without an explicit guarantee that he would head a unity government. Mugabe is expected to announce a new cabinet soon.
But his party's defeat yesterday left him with the difficult task of forming a government without a majority in parliament -- something that is likely to paralyse his beleaguered regime.
This has forced Mugabe to make offers to opposition MPs behind the scenes.
Mugabe had planned to grab control of parliament by supporting the Mutambara faction's candidate for speaker, Paul Themba Nyathi, in return for backing in the house of assembly. If this had succeeded Mugabe would have retained control of parliament and formed a government.
Moyo was elected by 110 votes to Nyathi's 98. Nyathi had been supported by Zanu (PF) but his bid failed as MPs from his faction voted with the Tsvangirai camp after revolting against their leadership for supporting Mugabe's plan.
The composition of the 210-member parliament also shows that at least three Zanu (PF) MPs voted for Moyo -- an unprecedented move that shifted the balance of power and marked a further decline of Mugabe's influence and rule. The defeat is expected to widen divisions within Zanu (PF).
Mugabe yesterday appointed eight provincial governors instead of 10 to the senate, leaving two positions for the Mutambara faction, sources said.
It is understood he appointed three senators instead of five, leaving two positions vacant for Mutambara and possibly his secretary-general Welshman Ncube .
Mugabe needed a way of taking them into his cabinet if their deal was to have worked.
The president and deputy of the senate are Zanu (PF) members, and the party has the majority in that tier of the government.
Tsvangirai's MDC narrowly defeated Zanu (PF) in March, winning 100 seats against Zanu (PF)'s 99. The Mutambara faction won 10. A party needs 106 votes to control parliament.
Amid cheers from MDC benches and chanting that "Zanu (PF) is now rotten", Moyo said parliament would now provide the necessary checks and balances on the government and exercise cabinet oversight .
"This h ouse ceases to become a rubber-stamping authority but will provide robust and constructive debate," Moyo said.
Nyathi hailed Moyo as a "man of integrity".
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Zanu (PF) leader in the h ouse, said only: "On behalf of my party, I say congratulations". His colleagues were stunned into silence and looked shocked after the results.
Zanu (PF)'s failure to retain control of parliament through a coalition with Mutambara is bound to embarrass Southern African Development Community leaders who recently gave Mugabe the go- ahead to convene parliament despite a memorandum of understanding on power-sharing negotiations which prohibited the move.
Moyo will have Nomalanga Khumalo of the Mutambara faction as a deputy.
The deal between the Tsvangirai group and Mutambara's MPs was that they would be rewarded with the post of deputy speaker for their support.
However, there is evidence that three Zanu (PF) MPs voted for Moyo because the Tsvangirai faction had 99 MPs voting and got eight votes from the Mutambara faction. This means that Moyo, who had a total of 110 votes, got 107 votes from the MDC bloc and three from Zanu (PF).
Tsvangirai's group had one MP who failed to vote after he was arrested by the police at parliament.
Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for Tsvangirai's group, said their MPs Shuah Mudiwa and Eliah Jembere were arrested yesterday morning on "political charges".
Mudiwa was released later, but Jembere remained in custody and could not vote.
MDC MP Paul Mungofa was also arrested yesterday, while another MDC MP, Elton Mangoma, was threatened with arrest.