MDC may quit over new powers for Mugabe

The troubled unity government of Zimbabwe is locked in a "make or break" battle over the constitution that could see the party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai walk out.

Members of Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) boycotted a cabinet meeting led by Robert Mugabe yesterday, but sources in the former opposition group said they were not yet ready to disengage.

The power-sharing administration is facing its most serious challenge yet following the start of talks about redrawing the bankrupt southern African nation's constitution. Plans put forward by Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party would concentrate more power in the hands of the President, an idea that was rejected in a referendum in 2000.

"If they insist on this draft then it will break the unity government, its content is unacceptable," said one MDC minister, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But I don't see that happening for several months, you don't want to walk out before trying to deal with this issue."

The MDC is pinning its hopes for free and fair elections on a revised constitution that diminishes the President's authority. Yesterday's cabinet boycott followed a perceived snub by Mr Mugabe, who rescheduled the meeting rather than have his rival take the chair. Thokozani Khupe, the Deputy Prime Minister, railed against "unilateral decisions" by Mr Mugabe, and hinted at a press conference that the time had come to "disengage".

This suggestion was later denied by other MDC officials, who said there would be an "intense fight" over the reforms but rejected any future cabinet boycott or government walk-out.

There are serious divisions within the unity cabinet, which contains an explosive mix of bitter political enemies, and several figures actively trying to sabotage it. "There are a small number of moderate Zanu people and a small number of hawks. In between you have a grey mass that is largely unreadable," said the MDC minister.

The row came as Mr Tsvangirai returned from a two-week tour of Western capitals where he largely failed to garner fresh aid for Zimbabwe.