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Zimbabwe's Battered, Divided Opposition Marks 8th Anniversary

Zimbabwe's opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, was formed eight years ago this week. When it was only six months old, it delivered President Robert Mugabe's first political defeat. Now it is a shadow of itself, split into two factions. As Peta Thornycroft reports for the VOA, the MDC has little chance of winning next year's crucial national elections even if there is electoral reform and a less repressive political climate.

The Movement for Democratic Change was established in 1999. Just six months after the party came into being, it was able to mobilize the people of Zimbabwe to vote against a new constitution in a national referendum.

It was a stinging blow for the aging Zimbabwean leader, dealt by a fledgling party under the leadership of the charismatic former secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The party drew support across racial and tribal lines, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Mugabe's rule and concern over an economy that had begun to shrink.

The victory in the referendum sparked a fresh mood of optimism in Zimbabwe. People in urban areas responded to Tsvangirai and they became the party's stronghold.

Just months later, in June 2000, and despite massive repression and accusations that the MDC was foreign-funded and a stooge of British imperialism, the party came within four seats of beating the ruling Zanu-PF in parliamentary elections.

Mr. Mugabe had already launched his chaotic land redistribution program, taking farms away from commercial farmers. The economy, dependent on agricultural exports mostly produced by the evicted farmers, went into rapid decline.

Tough new security and media laws were put in place. Ahead of presidential elections in 2002, Tsvangirai was charged with treason on a trumped-up charge of plotting to assassinate President Mugabe.

The trial drained the MDC's financial resources and put Tsvangirai at a disadvantage when he stood as the opposition candidate.

Tens of thousands were unable to vote, especially in Tsvangirai's stronghold, Harare. The party presented evidence during a subsequent court challenge which they said demonstrated that Zanu-PF cheated in order to give President Mugabe a 15-percent victory at the polls.

Following the election, more MDC legislators and supporters were detained, beaten and some were killed. The pro-MDC newspaper, The Daily News, was bombed and then closed down.

Squabbles emerged within the MDC, aggravated by tensions between its Shona and Ndebele leaders.

In the March 2005 general election, the MDC lost more than a third of the legislative seats it had won five years earlier.

The party finally split over the issue of whether to boycott senate elections later that year.

The split caused dismay and confusion among its supporters and left the MDC divided along tribal lines. There was some violence between the two factions.

The faction which chose to fight the senate elections asked academic Arthur Mutambara to lead it. He had been the first person from Mr. Mugabe's Shona tribe, as a student leader years earlier, to lead protests against the ruling ZANU-PF.

At present, both MDC factions have equal numbers of legislators in parliament, but most political observers say Tsvangirai has more supporters than Mutambara, particularly in densely populated Harare.

At present, both factions are selecting candidates for next year's national elections.

Political observers say this will split the opposition vote and give President Mugabe and his Zanu-PF easy victories.

Some political analysts say that if the two MDC factions do not quickly establish a coalition, the opposition party will lose the presidential vote and all but a handful of seats in legislative elections due next March.