HARARE, August 26 – Zimbabwe’s new parliament got off to a stormy start Tuesday when the opposition flexed its new-found political muscle by heckling President Robert Mugabe in the most hostile legislature the veteran leader has faced in 28 years.
Four MPs of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were arrested, bringing the total number in custody to five, police said.
The party said its MPs had been arrested "on trumped-up charges of political violence," which were a "direct affront to the will of the people of Zimbabwe".
Angered that a power struggle remains unresolved over his refusal to cede executive power months after a flawed presidential poll, the MDC roundly booed Mugabe during his speech.
The barracking intensified when he declared that "landmark agreements have been concluded with every expectation that everybody will sign up".
Opposition MPs had earlier abandoned plans to boycott the opening and flocked into parliament to denounce the session as meaningless, saying it violated a deal signed in July ahead of power-sharing talks, which have been stalled for two weeks.
Despite his 28-year grip on power, Mugabe faced an unfamiliar assembly, his ZANU-PF party outnumbered by the opposition for the first time since independence.
"ZANU is rotten" chanted the MDC deputies, who hold 100 seats to the once all-powerful ZANU-PFs 99 following the March general election. A breakaway opposition faction holds 10 seats with one independent making up the 210-seat assembly.
Tuesday’s arrests brought to five the number of opposition MPs in custody, following the arrest of another on rape charges on Monday in what the party said was an attempt to influence a crucial vote to elect the parliament speaker.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said the charges against those arrested Tuesday ranged from causing disaffection among the security forces, attempted murder, inciting public violence to rape.
Mugabe used the ceremonial opening to try to draw a line under months of political deadlock and put the best face on the crisis.
"The elections are now behind us…. Now is the time for us to put Zimbabwe first," he said in his speech.
And he accused Britain and the United States of a "vicious onslaught," saying Zimbabwe’s "enemies" had tried to oust him by undermining grain imports which had driven up regional food prices.
"Food is their latest weapon in their regime change agenda," Mugabe said.
Mugabe said the delay in opening parliament was due "to a praiseworthy search for peace and greater amity for our nation.
The 84-year-old president also lamented what he called "regrettable and isolated" cases of political violence which caused MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second round of a presidential election in June.
"Happily, all political parties in the country have acknowledged culpability in this violence," said Mugabe.
This prompted further jeers of derision from the opposition, who afterwards handed in a petition addressed to Mugabe rejecting his right to open the legislature.
"For the avoidance of doubt the only person who can officially open parliament will be determined by the outcome of the on-going dialogue" sponsored by the Southern African Development Community, it said.
The petition denounced "continued arrests and harassment of members of the MDC" which it said was an affront to Zimbabwe’s people.
The parliament was adjourned to October 14.
Earlier, Mugabe had arrived to cheers from a crowd of supporters gathered outside the parliament building in Harare.
Wearing the regalia of his ZANU-PF party, the crowd sang "He is our father. He is our leader" while Mugabe arrived in a Rolls Royce used for state ceremonies and then inspected a guard of honour.
The opposition said earlier Tuesday they would boycott the parliament opening, saying it will not recognise a government that was not a result of ongoing power-sharing negotiations.
"We will not attend…we don’t expect any member of the executive to address us until that dialogue has been concluded," MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told AFP.
The MDC won the key parliamentary speaker post in Monday’s vote, but ZANU-PF retained its presidency in the senate, parliament’s upper house, which has limited veto powers against lower house decisions.