Mugabe's grip on power loosens as rival wins vote for post of speaker

Robert Mugabe's increasingly desperate attempts to cling to power suffered a heavy blow yesterday when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won a vote for the coveted post of speaker of parliament.

Lovemore Moyo carried the vote despite the arrests of two MDC MPs as they arrived at parliament before the vote. This was seen as an attempt by Mr Mugabe to put the position of speaker beyond the reach of the MDC in the hung parliament, where the opposition MDC controls 100 seats against 99 for Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF and 10 for a splinter faction of the MDC. The remaining seat is held by an independent.

Mr Mugabe is to inaugurate the seventh parliament today, in which he will have no majority for the first time since independence in 1980. Mr Mugabe and the leader of the MDC splinter group, Arthur Mutambara, have surprisingly found common ground in talks to end the Zimbabwe crisis, mediated by the South African President, Thabo Mbeki.

But Mr Tsvangirai has refused to sign a deal amid disagreements on the powers of Mr Mugabe and of Mr Tsvangirai if he were to become prime minister. Mr Tsvangirai argues that under the deal he would not have the powers to formulate policy or appoint, chair and run the cabinet, while also leaving Mr Mugabe's executive powers intact.

Trying to divide the opposition, Mr Mugabe decided against fielding a candidate for speaker, preferring to back Mr Mutambara's candidate, Paul Themba Nyathi. Had Mr Themba Nyathi won, it is believed that Mr Mugabe would have proceeded to form a cabinet – perhaps with Mr Mutambara. That would have excluded Mr Tsvangirai, who defeated Mr Mugabe in the first round of presidential elections on 29 March before boycotting the second round on 27 June.

The MDC spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, said one of the MPs arrested yesterday, Shuah Mudiwa, was "literally pulled" out of the parliament building. He returned later to be sworn in, but the other MP, Eliah Jembere, remained in detention

Several of Mr Mutambara's MPs, and some from Zanu-PF, voted for Mr Moyo, who polled 110 votes against Mr Themba Nyathi's 98. "This is yet another crushing blow against tyranny and dictatorship in this country," said Mr Chamisa.

It is not clear whether Mr Mugabe would appoint a cabinet without Mr Tsvangirai and close any further dialogue.