Zimbabwe’s ruling party at the weekend publicly endorsed 91-year-old President Robert Mugabe as its candidate for elections in 2018 – but his visible frailty means that backstage, the focus was on his successor. Mugabe has stumbled twice in recent public appearances and in September read a speech to parliament apparently unaware that he had delivered exactly the same address a month earlier.
These signs of weakness in a man who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 35 years have injected new urgency into factional battles led by the elite within his ruling Zanu-PF party. “The focus is on retaining power or accessing power as a way of securing their gains and privileges,” said Godfrey Kanyenze, head of the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe.
“They know if they lose power their farms and businesses will be undermined.” First lady Grace Mugabe, 50, was appointed leader of the ZanuPF women’s wing last year and led a campaign that brought about the expulsion of Mugabe’s Deputy President and possible successor, Joice Mujuru, who is believed to be planning to form a new party to contest the next elections. Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seen as a front-runner, but there are signs that Mugabe and his wife could be planning to keep power within the family.
At the party’s annual conference in Victoria Falls at the weekend, the women’s wing pressed for a quota system, ensuring that one of Mugabe’s two deputies be a woman – a post which could go to Grace and put her in pole position. “The succession question is the mother of all problems bedevilling the party and it will continue to haunt the party until it’s resolved,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist from the University of Zimbabwe. “National development is being sacrificed at the altar of political feuding.”
Zimbabwe’s economy has been in crisis for 15 years since land reforms led to a collapse of agriculture, while hyperinflation wreaked havoc, unemployment boomed and millions of Zimbabweans fled abroad. Mugabe used the meeting to call for an end to factionalism. Despite the infighting within the ruling party, the chances of an outsider winning the next election are seen as slim because of Zanu-PF’s history of manipulating elections. “Ordinarily, you would expect the opposition to take advantage of the deep and profound problems in Zanu-PF, but they are in a comatose state,” said Masunungure. “As things stand, the real rivals for Zanu-PF are within Zanu-PF,” he said.