THE country's main opposition party is in disarray after a faction in the Movement for Democratic Change said at the weekend it had suspended the party leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in a move that could herald a split in the opposition.
The crisis at the MDC comes at a pivotal moment for Zimbabwe, where factions in the ruling Zanu PF party are already fighting to succeed 90-year old Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the landlocked country since independence from the UK in 1980.
Tsvangirai's MDC lost its third presidential election last July, prompting critics within the opposition movement to ask the 70-year old politician to hand power to a younger generation. But the announcement on Saturday of his suspension is the strongest sign yet of crisis within the party.
Tsvangirai, a former unionist, also challenged Mugabe at elections in 2002 and 2008, both of which were marred by violence and allegations of vote rigging. After the 2008 vote, the MDC joined Zanu-PF in a unity government, with Tsvangirai taking the post of prime minister.
The MDC vote to oust him as leader prompted political analysts to say that given the depth of mistrust and mutual hostility within rival factions in the movement it was impossible to see how a split in the opposition could be averted.
While on the face of it the main beneficiary of a split would be President Mugabe's Zanu PF, after last year's crushing electoral defeat the MDC in its current form no longer represents a serious threat to the government.
Mugabe's Achilles heel is not the political opposition, but Zimbabwe's deteriorating economic outlook and the deeply divisive infighting in the Zanu PF over his successor.
The Zimbabwean president and his party - which won more than two-thirds of the contested seats last July - have been pushing a controversial indigenisation policy under which they say all foreign companies operating in the southern Africa nation should be at least 51 per cent owned by black Zimbabweans.
Tsvangirai, who alleged massive vote rigging, has opposed the policy, which in theory will affect miners, including Impala Platinum, a South Africa-based group and the biggest foreign investor in Zimbabwe, and manufacturers Nestlé and British American Tobacco.
The suspension of Tsvangirai was announced on Saturday following a meeting of the party's National Council in Harare. Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, secretary of the MDC Guardians Council - a group of party elders - said the National Council had voted overwhelmingly for Tsvangirai's suspension as party leader.
In a statement, the council said: "The MDC as we know it has abandoned its original founding values and principles. The party has been hijacked by a dangerous fascist clique bent on destroying the same and totally working against the working people of Zimbabwe."
Nkomo said 138 council members had attended the meeting at which 136 voted to suspend the party leader, along with his deputy Thokozani Khupe, the national chairman, and three other top officials.
But a spokesman for Tsvangirai said the meeting was illegal and "improperly constituted".
Douglas Mwonzora, MDC Information secretary and a staunch Tsvangirai loyalist, said the meeting was "clearly the work" of state security agents, the ruling party Zanu PF, President Mugabe, Welshman Ncube, the leader of a rival MDC faction, and "a few malcontents in our ranks who are trying to destroy the MDC".
He said the party would immediately call another meeting of the national council at which the dispute between Tsvangirai loyalists and the so-called "renewal faction", headed by Tendai Biti, former finance minister, would be settled.
Speaking after the meeting, Biti launched a bitter attack on the party leader, accusing Tsvangirai of "using violence as a way of settling disputes, corruption, and disrespect of the constitution". Officials within the opposition said a party split was now inevitable.
David Coltart, a founding member of the party and former education minister, said while he was not surprised by the development, he believed that Tsvangirai remained a "very popular figure". "We really do need him as part of the overall democratic forces," he said.
Eddie Cross, a senior opposition politician, said the movement to oust the party's leader had no "traction with the bulk of the membership" in the movement.