April 29, 2014 / 4:48 PM / 5 years ago

Zimbabwe opposition leader Tsvangirai expels party challenger

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai expelled party secretary general and former finance minister Tendai Biti from his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Tuesday, the latest installment in infighting that has split the MDC.

Zimbabwe opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a media conference in Harare, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The turmoil is a gift for the 90-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, who is back in sole command since an election last year after having to share power with the MDC for four years, and does not face another election until 2018.

Tsvangirai fought the last of those elections - all of which the MDC and many Western observers say were rigged - under a cloud of sex scandals, and many analysts had been predicting that dissatisfaction with his leadership would cause a split in the MDC.

Biti’s faction said at the weekend that it had “suspended” Tsvangirai and six top party officials, partly over the MDC’s failure to unseat Mugabe.

Tsvangirai dismissed Biti’s move, and promised to bring forward from 2016 a party congress that will choose a new leadership. A close aide said Tsvangirai planned to seek re-election.

“The national council noted the attempted coup by Tendai Biti and others and, having formed their own party, (they) have ceased to be members of the MDC party,” Tsvangirai told reporters.

“The national council mandated the leadership of the party to organize an early congress in October to re-energize and transform the organization.”

He said the MDC would recall Biti and eight others from parliament. However, Biti told Reuters the MDC had now split into two factions and that Tsvangirai had no legal authority to remove him from the assembly.

Analysts say the 62-year-old Tsvangirai will probably retain the support of the party’s grass roots, who appear unlikely to follow Biti. But he faces an uphill task in repairing the damage to his reputation enough to stand any real chance in the next election.

The camp led by Biti, an outspoken lawyer, have access to the party’s finances and other assets but have been shut out of the MDC’s headquarters in Harare.

Tsvangirai has been at the helm of the MDC since its formation in 1999.

Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Stella Mapenzauswa

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