HARARE Zimbabwe's main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai faced more pressure to quit when party chiefs debated on Friday whether to call an early party congress to decide the future of a man who has lost three presidential polls.
Tsvangirai, 61, has led the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since it was formed in 1999 to challenge President Robert Mugabe, the sole ruler since the former Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980, and his ZANU-PF party.
But the former labor union leader has failed to dislodge the 89-year-old Mugabe in three elections, none of which was free or fair, according to the MDC and Western observers.
The MDC's deputy treasurer, Elton Mangoma, renewed pressure on Tsvangirai with an open letter this week asking him to quit, arguing that he had failed to push through reforms while in a four-year power-sharing government with Mugabe.
"It is my unbending resolve that leadership renewal...could be the only avenue to restoring the credibility of the party lest it risks being confined to history," Mangoma said.
He also accused MDC officials in the unity government formed after disputed polls in 2008 of accumulating personal wealth.
The next MDC congress is scheduled for 2016. Even if it is brought forward, analysts predict a drawn-out leadership contest that is likely further to weaken or divide the opposition party.
The MDC, evicted from the coalition government after its crushing defeat in last year's parliamentary election, is split over whether to dump Tsvangirai before the next poll in 2018.
While accusing ZANU-PF of violence and vote-rigging to keep power, some MDC officials say Tsvangirai has been damaged by sex scandals and often outsmarted by Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader.
Previous attempts to bring forward the MDC congress have failed in the last six months. "If the national executive decides on that, then there is going to be a congress, but it's not a given," party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said.
Tsvangirai's camp says Mangoma is a Trojan horse for MDC Secretary-General and former Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who denies he is maneuvering to succeed Tsvangirai, but who has not come out publicly in his support.
Diplomats say Tsvangirai's opponents may have made a tactical blunder by disclosing that he has been offered a $3 million golden handshake, making it difficult for him to accept.
"They should have handled some of this stuff privately to preserve his dignity," said an diplomat from a neighboring country. "They might actually wake up a lot weaker if he digs in and the whole thing turns into a mess."
(Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alistair Lyon)