A split in Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will effectively derail opposition politics in the country for some time to come, say analysts.
Divisions in Zimbabwe's official opposition looked poised to degenerate into a permanent split on Sunday when MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai accused members supporting the party's participation in this month's senate elections of working in cahoots with the ruling ZANU-PF to destroy the party.
The labour-backed MDC is entangled in a bitter wrangle over the 26 November election, with Tsvangirai calling for a boycott while other top officials - including Gibson Sibanda, a former fellow trade unionist and the party's vice-president, and party secretary-general Welshman Ncube - are for participation.
"A split is inevitable," said an insider close to mediation efforts to resolve the differences. "It will considerably weaken both sides - both factions are going to lose out."
Tsvangirai is seen as the man with the mass support and the national profile, while Sibanda and Ncube, who are elected members of parliament, also represent the MDC's valuable Ndebele bank of votes in the Matabeleland provinces of southern Zimbabwe.
The MDC is the most serious opposition ZANU-PF has faced since independence in 1980. A year after its formation, the broad based party ran ZANU-PF a close second in parliamentary elections in 2000, securing a political lock on Matabeleland and urban centres that it has managed to retain, despite levels of political violence.
The crisis in the MDC followed Tsvangirai overruling a national council decision in October to participate in the senate election. He argued the MDC's agreed position had been to ignore the poll on the grounds that it would be a waste of tax-payers money, and the senior chamber would be dominated by the ruling party.
The pro-election faction argued that by boycotting the MDC would hand ZANU-PF control of constituencies it could not win through the ballot box, and Tsvangirai had torn up the party's rule book by ignoring the national council's verdict.
The majority of MDC MPs are in the pro-senate faction. However, they would not be able to survive politically without the support of the women's and youth wings of the party, who have sworn allegiance to a beleaguered Tsvangirai, several analysts commented.
But Chris Maroleng, an analyst from the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think-tank, took a more optimistic view of a possible breakaway faction.
"We must not consider the women and youth wings as a homogenous entity - the [MDC] provincial bodies, particularly in the south, will naturally align themselves with Ncube and Sibanda," he noted.
He also believed a division between Tsvangirai and the pro-election faction could give renewed impetus to possible talks between parts of the opposition and a reform-minded ZANU-PF - an outcome that neighbouring South Africa has tried to encourage.
"Ncube did share a rapport with Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa [representing a technocrat wing in ZANU-PF] in inter-party talks in the past," he noted.
Dialogue in 2002 ended over MDC's refusal to withdraw a legal challenge to the presidential elections, which it claimed had been rigged. Subsequent efforts by the South African government to get the two parties to form a government of national unity were also plagued by mistrust, and attempts to revive the talks failed.
After winning legislative elections earlier this year by a landslide, President Robert Mugabe would be even less inclined to talk to a divided MDC, Zimbabwe-based analysts noted.
Pro-democracy activist Brian Kagoro dismissed suggestions of an alliance between any members of the MDC and ZANU-PF. "I do not think it is possible, or they [opposition members] will be writing their own political epitaphs."
But Kagoro also suggested an MDC breakup was not inevitable. "Relationships have been shelved for strategic reasons ... not buried," he said, citing the 20-year alliance between Tsvangirai and Sibanda in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
Describing the feud as "a result of deep-seated personality differences", Kagoro predicted that tensions were going "to boil over" near the senate elections and "then simmer down as they realise they cannot survive without each other".
However, Maroleng and other analysts felt the party was unlikely to last as a united entity until the MDC convention in February next year, but all believed that should a split occur, the key battle would be over who retained the name of the party.
"Anyone who has to deal with Zimbabwe's opposition has to deal with Morgan Tsvangirai, who represents the opposition," said an analyst who wished to remain anonymous.
This was also acknowledged by the pro-senate faction. MDC's spokesman Paul Themba-Nyathi told IRIN on Monday that while the party had grounds to move against Tsvangirai legally for defying its constitution, "we still have to look at it politically".
"We do have to take cognisance of the fact that Tsvangirai does have support [within and outside the MDC] - he has stood up against Mugabe, faced treason charges, survived assassination attempts - he does enjoy a lot of sympathy," Themba-Nyathi pointed out.
However, a court ruling could sweep that power and popularity aside and deprive Tsvangirai of his post, some commentators noted.
In the meantime, insults continue to fly between the two warring factions.
Addressing rallies over the weekend in Bulawayo, in Matabeleland North province, and Gweru, in Midlands province, Tsvangirai urged supporters to shun the November polls and also announced the expulsion from the MDC of 26 senate hopefuls contesting the election in open defiance of his call for them to withdraw their candidature.
"One clear thing is that those who favour participation were bribed by ZANU-PF to destabilise the opposition. The evidence is there for everyone to see, otherwise why would they - our trusted friends - all of a sudden rebel against me as the party president and want to legitimise the senate elections, which are in fact a ZANU-PF project?" Tsvangirai asked the crowd.
At a press briefing after the rally Themba-Nyathi responded: "People of Zimbabwe now know that Tsvangirai is not fit to lead this country. Everybody is left with no doubt whatsoever that Zimbabwe is one country, which should not be burdened with this man as its president."
Speaking to IRIN, Themba-Nyathi denied Tsvangirai's claims that the current leadership "is being coaxed by the ZANU-PF. Our leaders [Sibanda and Ncube] are people with high principles and integrity - the gap between us [ZANU-PF and MDC] is too wide."
Tsvangirai ended his weekend speeches in a conciliatory mood, calling for the pro-senate group to abstain from the election and reconcile with him.
"All those who defied the directive are no longer members of the party - that's a simple issue - but it is our hope that Sibanda and his group will finally reason and part ways with ZANU-PF. We sincerely hope that they will come back and be part of us," he said.
Themba-Nyathi dismissed Tsvangirai's claims, saying, "The purported expulsion of those who stand as senators is null and void - that is vintage Tsvangirai, breaking the constitution yet again; breaking the procedures within the MDC."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions