By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said on Wednesday he would remain leader of his MDC party despite an internal call for him to quit after an overwhelming defeat in July's presidential election against Robert Mugabe.
Tsvangirai has dismissed his third consecutive defeat by Mugabe as fraud, but it has fuelled speculation he might step down as leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the party he has led since its formation in 1999 when Zimbabwe's economy began to crumble.
Mugabe, 89, took more than 60 percent of the vote against 34 percent for Tsvangirai.
But Tsvangirai, who served as prime minister in a unity government with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party until last month, said no one had challenged him for the leadership and he would continue as MDC president until the next party congress in 2016.
"You don't just wake up in the streets and say Tsvangirai must go. There are forums that should make this decision," Tsvangirai, 61, said at a news briefing.
"I cannot, in the middle of a struggle, just abandon people. To what objective? To satisfy who? To satisfy ZANU-PF? To satisfy people with individual grudges against me?" he said.
MDC treasurer-general Roy Bennett, the party's only white senior official, has so far been a lone voice in publicly calling for Tsvangirai to be replaced by a new leader.
Bennett, a former commercial farmer, told South Africa's Business Day newspaper last week Tsvangirai's continued leadership did not reflect the will of the party's grassroots supporters.
Bennett has lived in exile in South Africa since September 2010 after an arrest warrant for contempt of court was issued against him for saying a judge trying him was not impartial. He was later acquitted of terrorism charges, which he said were part of political persecution by Mugabe and ZANU-PF.
Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader, has travelled the country in the aftermath of the election, reassuring demoralised supporters and looking ahead to the next presidential and parliamentary vote in 2018.
Pointing to flaws in the vote cited by domestic observers, Western governments, especially the United States, have questioned the credibility of the election result.
But Mugabe, Africa's oldest and one of its longest-serving leaders who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, has dismissed the criticism.
The election was endorsed as "free, peaceful and largely credible" by the regional Southern African Development Community, while the African Union raised concerns over the registration of voters.