- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe | Zimbabwe’s main opposition party won the top job in Parliament on Monday, scoring a surprise victory that could give President Robert Mugabe‘s foes leverage in power-sharing talks.

It is the first time since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 that the speaker’s post has not been held by an ally of Mr. Mugabe.

The election of Lovemore Moyo of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on a 110-98 vote brought cheers, with opposition legislators breaking into a song declaring “ZANU-PF is finished!”

The result indicated some members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) may have voted for Mr. Moyo in the secret ballot.

Mr. Mugabe’s party had held a parliamentary majority since independence, but it emerged from March elections with 99 seats in the 210-seat legislature, just behind the 100 held by MDC. A splinter opposition party has 10 seats and an independent one.

ZANU-PF had been expected to retain the speakership in a body that long had been a rubber stamp for Mr. Mugabe’s policies, but it surprised many people by not putting up a candidate.

“The figures were against us,” said ruling party legislator Walter Mzemdi. He said ZANU-PF lawmakers were instructed to vote for Paul Themba-Nyathi, a leader of the splinter opposition faction, but the total for Mr. Moyo showed some backed him.

Mr. Moyo promised to “work toward a professional parliament that will represent the true wishes of the people of Zimbabwe.”

If the opposition continues to win support from the splinter faction, it would have the simple majority needed to cripple Mr. Mugabe by blocking funds for government ministries and projects.

Without that support, however, the assembly could mire in deadlock. That could be a boost to Mr. Mugabe, who retains power to dissolve Parliament and rule through emergency regulations imposed by presidential decree.

In the March 29 voting, the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai defeated Mr. Mugabe’s party for the first time in legislative races, but the official results in the presidential ballot gave no candidate the simple majority needed for victory.

Mr. Tsvangirai, who led the initial round and claimed he was denied a victory by vote fraud, was scheduled to face Mr. Mugabe in a June runoff. But the opposition leader dropped out of the race after weeks of violence aimed at his supporters. Mr. Mugabe held a one-man runoff that was widely condemned at home and abroad.

Tensions remain high between the two sides.

Mr. Mugabe’s decision to officially open Parliament on Tuesday breaks an agreement he signed last month with Mr. Tsvangirai that the assembly would not sit unless both men agreed or until a power-sharing deal was struck.

On Monday, shortly before the election for speaker, two opposition legislators were arrested. Lawmaker Sure Mudiwa was held only briefly and later was among the 208 Parliament members sworn in. But the second, Elia Jembere, did not reappear.

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