Harare - Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai sought on Thursday to allay fears of an implosion of his party which has posed the most formidable challenge to veteran ruler Robert Mugabe's hold on power.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of the ex-premier has recently been embroiled in quarrels which have at times degenerated into physical attacks.
The bickering got worse after the party's deputy treasurer Elton Mangoma wrote to Tsvangirai suggesting he step down after the MDC's loss to Mugabe's Zanu-PF in elections last July.
In the dramatic series of events, suspected Tsvangirai loyalists beat up Mangoma in front of the party's headquarters last month.
Days later, the house of the party's secretary general Tendai Biti was firebombed in an incident police dismissed as intra-party rivalry.
Last week Mangoma was suspended from the party.
But Tsvangirai on Tuesday came out to declare that “the party is alive”.
“There may appear to be a crisis in the cockpit, but the crisis in the cockpit will be sorted out.”
The party's treasurer Roy Bennett, who is exiled in South Africa, and other senior officials have echoed similar calls for Tsvangirai to resign after losing to Mugabe in the July 31 general election.
The furious squabbling has left many fearing Zimbabwe's largest opposition could be splintered once again.
“The tragedy of these events is that this could lead to another split in the party and deny Zimbabweans an alternative political choice,” said Rushweat Mukundu, of the political thinktank Zimbabwe Democratic Institute.
“Such a scenario will give Zanu-PF an advantage.”
Analysts say the country can ill afford a divided opposition.
“We hope that there won't be an implosion,” said Ibbo Mandaza, who heads a Harare-based regional think-tank, the Southern African Political and Economic Series (SAPES).
“We can't afford the collapse of the official opposition in the country,” Mandaza said.
In his third unsuccessful attempt to unseat the 90-year-old Mugabe, Tsvangirai lost last year's election polling 34 percent against Mugabe's 61. His party alleged the vote was rigged.
Dumisani Nkomo, a political analyst based in the second city of Bulawayo, said the latest events were reminiscent of the haggling that led to the party's split in 2006.
It was just five years after its creation when it broke into two factions after disagreement over whether or not to contest in a vote to elect senators.
Disgruntled members went on to form an offshoot of the MDC, led by former secretary general Welshman Ncube, jeopardising the opposition's chances to topple Mugabe.
“It looks like another split is looming,” warned Nkomo, blaming Tsvangirai's leadership style.
“Public confidence has been eroded and I don't see them competing against Zanu-PF,” added Nkomo.
But Tsvangirai was adamant the party is still intact.
“Some have mistaken the robust debate in this party as a sign of disintegration, but I want to assure you that we continue working towards achieving unity so that we become much bigger and better,” said Tsvangirai.
Seen as the most credible challenger to Mugabe's nearly 34-year hold on power, the MDC was formed in 1999 by an alliance of civic and trade union groups riding on widespread discontent over rising food prices.
In 2008, the largest faction of the party came close to toppling Zanu-PF when Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in presidential elections but fell short of attaining a majority required to be declared outright winner.
The MDC made history in the same election when it garnered the majority of the parliamentary seats, a first by any opposition party since the country's independence in 1980. - Sapa-AFP