A battle over who will eventually succeed 85-year-old Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe as party leader threatens the future of his long-ruling Zanu-PF, but analysts say an immediate split is unlikely at a congress this week.
By balancing competing factions and through a political patronage system, Mugabe has kept a tight grip on Zanu-PF since becoming party leader in the mid-1970s and spearheading a guerrilla war against white minority rule.
But as Mugabe heads into the twilight of a political career spanning more than half a century, his lieutenants have stepped up an internal fight for prime positions to take over the party when Mugabe retires. He has not given a date.
Rival factions have been jostling for posts in Zanu-PF’s ”presidium” leadership before a five-yearly party congress opening in Harare on Friday, widening cracks within ranks already torn over personalities, and ethnic and regional issues.
”These fights are going to go on until Mugabe goes, and when he goes Zanu-PF is in danger of disintegration,” said Eldred Masunungure, a leading political analyst.
”There is no consensus candidate on who should succeed Mugabe, and Mugabe himself has apparently created that crisis to remain in power,” Masunungure told Reuters.
But whoever eventually wins the battle to succeed Mugabe — whenever his position becomes vacant — will have a huge task to reorganise a party that many critics say just managed to hang on to power last year through violence against the opposition.
A post-election stand-off with the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) forced Mugabe to sign a power-sharing deal with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Since then the new government has struggled to rebuild the shattered economy and attract much-needed aid funds.
”All the fighting that is going on in Zanu-PF is not going to help them at the next elections against the MDC,” said Lovemore Madhuku, chairperson of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.
”What is emerging is a weak and divided party, a party probably in terminal decline,” he said.
The two-day congress will endorse Mugabe as party head for five years, and confirm a new policy-making central committee.
A faction led by former army General Solomon Mujuru has gained an upper hand in the succession battle as Mujuru’s wife, Joice Mujuru (54), has been nominated by most of Zanu-PF’s provincial executives to remain as vice-president to Mugabe.
This makes Joice Mujuru, for now, the frontrunner to succeed Mugabe as Zanu-PF leader if he steps down, ahead of rival faction leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, who local media has for long touted as a favourite to takeover from Mugabe.
The congress will also confirm John Nkomo (75), current party chairperson, as second Zanu-PF vice-president, replacing veteran politician Joseph Msika, who died aged 86 this year.
Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, Simon Khaya Moyo (64), has been earmarked to fill Nkomo’s party chairperson post.
The issue of Mugabe’s successor has divided Zanu-PF along ethnic lines, with Mnangagwa’s faction charging that Mujuru’s group seeks to preserve the party presidency for another member of Mugabe’s Zezuru ethnic group.
”The problem of tribalism or ethnic tensions has been swept under the carpet in Zanu-PF for a long time, but I think this is going to be a real issue if some things appear so obvious,” said Masunungure.
Mugabe has flatly refused to discuss his retirement plans, but analysts say he is unlikely to contest the next presidential poll — expected in the next two years or in 2013 if the current unity government runs a full term.
He will be heading towards his 90th birthday by then, and may not get his party support to continue in power. — Reuters