Zimbabwe's political battle ground shifts to Legislative Assembly

HARARE – With Zimbabwe's parliament called to convene on Tuesday, the main political parties including President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and both formations of the Movement for Democratic Change are positioning them for the first critical vote for speaker of the lower house.

The outcome of that vote by the 210 members of the house of assembly could set the tone for a parliament in which the combined opposition Movement for Democratic Change holds a majority – but may not exercise it as many anticipated after the March general election.

Political sources said the MDC formation of Arthur Mutambara will put forward Paul Themba Nyathi as its own candidate for speaker when parliament is recalled next week.

The MDC grouping led by Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to nominate its national chairman, Lovemore Moyo. Division between the two MDC camps could open the door wider for a deal between Mutambara’s MDC and ZANU-PF, which might seek to secure the post of deputy speaker – and court the MDC faction as a coalition partner by backing Themba Nyathi

The ZANU-PF central committee was to meet Saturday to choose its own candidate. But party sources said the short list includes National Chairman John Nkomo and ministers defeated in the general election on March 29, including Oppah Muchinguri and Sikhanyiso Ndlovu.

Compromise candidates include former ZANU-PF politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa, who broke with the ruling party in 2005 over its forced eviction and demolition drive, former speaker Cyril Ndebele and Mutambara faction Vice President Gibson Sibanda.

While the opening of parliament seems a sure thing, there are many questions regarding the cabinet. Some lawyers say Mr. Mugabe can name ministers who lost their parliamentary seats for an additional three months, while others say they must step down.

National Constitutional Assembly Chairman Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional expert, told reporter that there is no constitutional impediment to recalling parliament even though Tsvangirai and other MDC officials have warned that it breaches the July 21 memorandum setting power-sharing talks.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led Morgan Tsvangirai, will attend the swearing-in of new members of parliament on Monday, an MDC official said on Thursday.

"We are going to parliament to defend our mandate. Our problem is with the convening of parliament – not the swearing-in of members," MDC secretary general Tendai Biti said.

The MDC had said it had not consented to the reconvening of parliament after disputed elections earlier this year, claiming it could endanger talks to resolve Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

"If you convene parliament, you are closing the door to negotiations," Biti said.

"We have no idea when the negotiations will start, but convening of parliament means they have no regard for the Memorandum of Understanding and not interesting in talking anymore."

The memorandum of understanding – which paved the way for power-sharing talks – was signed by President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the MDC on July 21 in Harare before South African President and mediator Thabo Mbeki.

Edwin Mushoriwa, a spokesperson of a smaller MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara, said its elected MPs would not boycott the oath-taking on Monday.

"If we don’t attend, Mugabe’s MPs would choose the speaker and deputy. We cannot boycott the sitting of parliament", he said.

"We are opposed to the rule of Mugabe", he added. "We may vote on a particular issue (with Zanu-PF or MDC-Tsvangirai), but we’re not getting in partnership with one or the other."

He denied his party has entered into an informal agreement with the regime.

"We are a distinct political party. It is untrue that there was an informal agreement with Zanu-PF", he stated.

Negotiations on power-sharing were suspended last week, and both opposition and the South African mediators have said they did not know when they would resume.

Zanu-PF suffered a historic defeat in legislative elections in March. The veteran leader was re-elected in a one-man presidential run-off in June that was boycotted by Tsvangirai, who had defeated him in the first round.

The swearing-in of the MPs was announced on Tuesday by parliamentary clerk Austin Zvoma, with the composition of a new cabinet expected to follow.