Zimbabwe leader jeered at parliament opening

Image: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe arrives at Parliament
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honor at the opening of Parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Feeling victorious and defiant, opposition legislators heckled President Robert Mugabe and questioned his right to preside over Tuesday's opening of Zimbabwe's first parliament.

The unprecedented scene — broadcast live on national television — set the stage for a combative legislature, even as Mugabe and his rivals try to negotiate sharing power following disputed elections.

Tuesday's tension, with more hostile lawmakers than loyalists of the embattled leader, may be a glimpse into a future of bitter debates and close votes in parliament, previously a rubber-stamp irrelevance.

With a show that demonstrated his love-hate relationship with former colonizer Britain, Mugabe arrived in an open-topped vintage Rolls Royce escorted by police on horseback sporting plumed pith helmets and then proceeded to lambast the West.

He accused Britain and the United States of unleashing "a vicious onslaught" against his rule.

"Regrettably we have noticed the hand of our enemies to thwart us" with rising prices of food imports from its neighbors, he said.

"Food is the latest weapon in their regime change agenda."

Mugabe's speech often was drowned out by jeers of his opponents, who clapped and sang songs deriding him and his ZANU-PF party. "ZANU is rotten. You are great liars," they sang.

Looking annoyed, Mugabe first raised his voice then raced through the final lines of his speech.

Mugabe called 'illegitimate usurper'
Opposition legislators presented a petition pointing out that the opening of the parliament was "a clear breach" of the agreement that led to power-sharing talks.

It called Mugabe "the illegitimate usurper of the people's will."

The petition also condemned the arrests of opposition legislators. When parliamentarians reported Monday to be sworn in, two were arrested. A third opposition legislator who is on the team negotiating power-sharing was arrested at his home early Tuesday, the opposition reported.

Opposition spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the arrests are an attempt to subvert his party's slight majority in parliament.

Some 2,000 opposition activists remain jailed in Zimbabwe months after March 29 elections where they garnered more votes than Mugabe and his party.

Mugabe reacted violently, unleashing soldiers, police and militants accused of killing nearly 200 opposition members, breaking the limbs of thousands and forcing tens of thousands from homes set ablaze.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF had controlled parliament since independence in 1980. In March, Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change won 100 of the 210 seats. Mugabe's party won 99 seats and a splinter opposition faction won 10. An independent who broke away from Mugabe's party has the remaining seat.

In parliament Monday, the opposition's Lovemore Moyo won the race for speaker by a surprising 110 votes to 98. The ballot was secret, but Moyo apparently got votes from both Mugabe's party and the splinter faction to win a post that puts him in charge of parliament's debate and schedule and gives him the power to appoint committee chairmen.

Government business paralyzed until Oct.
Parliament's first order of business will be to approve funds for government ministries and projects — a budget vote that normally would have been completed months ago. So government business will remain largely paralyzed until legislators meet again on Oct. 14.

If the opposition continues to win support from the splinter faction, it would have the simple majority needed to block those funds. But if there is deadlock, Mugabe could dissolve the assembly and rule by decree. It is unlikely the opposition could summon the two-thirds vote needed to impeach Mugabe.

Meanwhile there is a standoff in the negotiations over how Tsvangirai and Mugabe would share power.

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe and two other candidates in presidential elections held alongside the legislative balloting, but did not gain the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff. Mugabe held a one-man runoff and declared himself victor despite Western condemnation.

The opposition blames Zimbabwe's crisis on Mugabe's increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule. Zimbabwe began unraveling after Mugabe ordered the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms for landless blacks. Instead, most farms went to Cabinet ministers and generals who let the land lie fallow and destroyed the country's economic base.

Mugabe blames sanctions
Mugabe has repeatedly blamed his country's woes on European and U.S. sanctions, which he called illegal on Tuesday.

"Sanctions must go," he said, to cheers from his supporters. "They cannot last a day longer if we as Zimbabweans speak against them in deafening unison." The sanctions target people and companies linked to Mugabe with travel bans and asset freezes.

While they are meant to spare ordinary Zimbabweans, already suffering from chronic shortages of food, medication, electricity and water, Zimbabwean officials say the sanctions help discourage foreign investment, loans and aid.

More than a third of Zimbabweans depend of foreign food aid but Mugabe has barred charities for handing out the food, charging they were favoring opposition supporters. Opposition legislators on Tuesday called on Mugabe to honor his agreement to allow food to be distributed, signed as a prerequisite for the power-sharing talks.