HARARE Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's plan to get married this weekend was thwarted on Friday after a magistrate ruled he was already married to a former flame, the latest twist in a scandal that has gripped the southern African nation.
The dispute - which has seen two women challenge his wedding plans - has handed long-serving President Robert Mugabe political ammunition as he seeks to extend his three-decade rule in an election expected within a year since Tsvangirai is his main rival.
Lawyers for the premier said on Friday they would appeal the magistrate's ruling, issued less than 24 hours before Tsvangirai's wedding to fiancee Elizabeth Macheka was due to go ahead.
"The court made its ruling and now we don't agree with it," Thabani Mpofu, one of the lawyers, told reporters. "We are going to launch an urgent High Court application, which will be heard either tonight or tomorrow morning before the wedding."
Whatever the outcome of the appeal, the brouhaha has damaged Tsvangirai's reputation and raised questions about his relationships with women and money.
Former lover Locardia Karimatsenga earlier this week tried to block the wedding on the grounds she was already wed to 60-year-old Tsvangirai under Zimbabwe's "customary marriage" law.
The next day, a second woman, South African Nosipho Regina Shilubane, also filed a court challenge to stop the wedding, saying she was engaged to the former trade unionist, with whom she had been romantically involved since 2009.
The High Court had previously rejected Karimatsenga's challenge but a magistrate granted her appeal on Friday.
The case has fanned tabloid-style headlines and aired salacious details about Tsvangirai's private life since the death of his wife Susan in a car crash in 2009.
While 88-year-old President Mugabe has been criticized for turning what was once one of Africa's strongest economies into a basket case, Tsvangirai is now facing public questions about his judgment.
"There are also career-related issues at stake, including public trust, opinion, voters and elections, and the question: is he fit to govern?", The Zimbabwe Independent, a private weekly newspaper, said in an editorial.
Tsvangirai's spokesman dismissed both cases as plots by the former British colony's security services to tarnish the reputation of a man who has fought hard to end Mugabe's rule.
But even Tsvangirai's aides have long questioned his choice of partners - Karimatsenga's sister is a member of parliament from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, while Macheka's father is a member of ZANU-PF's central committee.
"Intelligence services are almost unquestionably involved. There is a script behind the theatre," the Zimbabwe Independent said.
(Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Osborn)