Zimbabwe's main opposition party won its first legislative showdown against President Robert Mugabe on Monday, taking the post of speaker of parliament.
The Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, is deadlocked in talks with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party over who should control the government, and Mugabe reconvened parliament despite opposition complaints that such a move would "decapitate" the negotiations.
Frustrated by their country's economic collapse, voters stripped Mugabe of his parliamentary majority in March 29 elections for the first time since independence in 1980. But Mugabe was declared the winner in a presidential runoff in June that observers found to be undemocratic.
International aid agencies say that by January, 5 million people will need emergency food aid to avoid starvation. But Mugabe has banned international humanitarian agencies.
Monday's vote on the speaker was the first significant test of who will control parliament, analysts said, and the election of Lovemore Moyo was a blow to the regime.
Even though it lost its majority, ZANU-PF has been trying to tempt opposition members to defect by offering jobs and rewards, according to the opposition.
Police arrested two opposition members as they arrived at parliament and tried to seize a third, according to the MDC, which accused the ruling party of trying to rig the vote on the speaker's job. One of those taken was freed in time for the vote, but the other, Eliah Zembere, was being held Monday.
ZANU-PF did not field a candidate, but it was unable to unite with a breakaway faction of the MDC to elect that group's candidate.
Although the ballot was secret, it appeared that the 10 members of the breakaway MDC faction voted against their candidate rather than cooperate with ZANU-PF. The main faction, loyal to Morgan Tsvangirai, has 100 members of parliament, 99 of whom were present Monday. ZANU-PF has 99, and there is one independent. Moyo received 110 votes.
The vote underscores the problems Mugabe will have in passing laws and getting a budget through parliament.
"It's not just about the speaker, but [Mugabe] has lost control of parliament, which makes it very difficult to govern," said David Coltart, a senator representing the breakaway MDC faction. He believes this will force Mugabe back to the negotiating table.
Tsvangirai won the most votes in the March 29 presidential election, but not the outright majority required to avoid a runoff, according to official results. He pulled out of the June 27 runoff because of widespread violence against MDC activists, which human rights groups said was overwhelmingly state-sponsored.
Mugabe is determined to maintain control of the Cabinet and security forces, and Tsvangirai suffered a setback when leaders of the Southern African Development Community said that allowing the president to keep those powers was a good basis for a settlement.
But analysts say such a deal would do nothing to unravel Mugabe's control of the country or allow it to attract the Western support needed to rebuild its economy and feed its population.
Tsvangirai is pushing for control over Cabinet appointments, the police and intelligence service. While Mugabe still would control the army in that plan, his role would be much reduced.
John Makumbe, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, said Tsvangirai was under pressure within Zimbabwe not to compromise.
"The majority of people in Zimbabwe are saying, 'If you are not in control of the security forces, don't sign, because it means Mugabe can unleash violence whenever he likes,' " Makumbe said.
Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group think tank, said Tsvangirai was right to hold out for greater powers, even though he was being cast as the intransigent party by the SADC mediator, South African President Thabo Mbeki.
"Though Mugabe wears no general's uniform, for all practical purposes, his is a military dictatorship, relying on the support of the military establishment and brute domestic force to cling to power," Evans wrote in a recent article in Britain's Guardian newspaper.