For a party facing annihilation at the next election, probably in 2011, president Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF appears to be in remarkably robust health.
Party officials claim that upwards of 10,000 people will attend this week’s national congress in Harare at which Mr Mugabe, who turns 86 next February, will again be endorsed as president of the party.
The congress, which starts on Thursday, is expected to be dominated by a debate on strategy over the party’s talks with its partners in the “inclusive” government – the two wings of the Movement for Democratic Change – and efforts to resolve the succession debate.
Having secured the party’s endorsement in almost all Zimbabwe’s ten provinces for re-election to the post of vice-president, Joyce Mujuru, wife of former army chief Solomon Mujuru, is the clear frontrunner to succeed the ageing president.
But Mr Mugabe appears to have little confidence in his senior deputy and would prefer Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-standing party loyalist who, although he has held a number of senior positions in the party, lacks support outside his home province.
The president fears that in a head-to-head contest Mrs Mujuru would win easily, as a result of which the party would split.
Some analysts argue that both Mr Mugabe and his party are now so unpopular that the succession is something of a non-event.
But because Zanu-PF has managed to retain its hold over the army, the police, the parastatals and the state media, it still has a formidable power base as well as the ability to frustrate Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister and MDC leader, in his effort to reform and stabilise the country.
The Zanu-PF congress slogan, “United in defence of our natural resources and people’s economic empowerment”, is designed to alert voters to the danger that Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC is preparing to “sell the country” to the west via privatisation and attracting foreign investment.
Despite the disastrous failure of its land reform policy over the last 10 years, Zanu-PF still believes it can win elections by promising to defend the country against western economic exploitation and redistributing wealth, especially foreign-owned wealth.
John Makumbe, political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, expects the president to reject many of the MDC’s demands in talks presided over by the Southern African Development Community, with South African mediation.
The discussions are ostensibly about full implementation of the so-called Global Political Agreement reached 15 months ago. In reality they are about Zanu-PF giving up some of its powers over the appointment of top officials like those of Gideon Gono, central bank governor, and Johannes Tomana, attorney general. The parties are also divided over the continuing farm invasions by Mugabe supporters, freedom of the media, and the selective application of the rule of law in favour of Zanu-PF.
Mr Makumbe says that in his keynote speech on Friday Mr Mugabe will “come out defiant, saying the onus is on the MDC to resolve what it sees as the outstanding issues”. Mr Makumbe does not believe there will be any leadership challenge from the powerful Mujuru faction because “they are all too petrified of the old man”.
Eldred Masungure, another political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, says this congress comes “at a critical time for Mugabe who could not afford to be seen making concessions to the MDC”.
Mr Mugabe will use his speech to try and reassure the party faithful, but when the delegates go home, little will have been resolved. Even if the party makes progress on peripheral issues, the succession will still be up for grabs and the party will have done nothing to shore up its position with a disillusioned electorate.
All this spells disaster for the party’s electoral prospects, says Mr Makumbe: “Mugabe will lose the next election and that will be the end of Zanu-PF. They are in a dilemma, either way, the party seems heading towards disintegration.”