His Zanu PF party will hold a rally in the city of Bulawayo next Saturday but Mugabe himself will celebrate quietly on Sunday with his family.
Hailed as a savior by fanatical supporters and praised throughout Africa for standing up to what many see as bullying by the West, Mugabe is hated in equal measure by opponents who accuse him of being a dictator who is intolerant of opposition.
Mugabe was elected unopposed in December to lead his party for another five years and political analysts said he is automatically ZANU-PF’s presidential candidate in the next election, likely to be held in 2013, when he will be 89.
If he stands then, that could further divide his party, which lost elections for the first time in March 2008 and was forced into a coalition with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister.
Although Mugabe is in the twilight of a long political career, analysts say ZANU-PF is too torn by factional fighting over a successor, leaving the veteran leader’s challengers weaker and unable to pose a serious challenge.
“He is 86 and has a fresh five-year mandate to lead the party. The leadership of Zanau PF want him to die in office as president of the party,” Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe said.
Masunungure said three of Zanu PF’s vice-presidents had died in office and the party wanted to follow that precedent.
TOO MUCH FOR CRITICS
A fresh mandate for Mugabe as president may be too much for his critics, who say prolonging his rule will compound Zimbabwe’s problems and stifle economic recovery.
As examples of Mugabe’s bad policies, they point to seizures of white-owned farms and new laws that will force foreign-owned firms, including banks and mines, to cede majority shares to blacks.
Mugabe and his inner circle have been subject to Western sanctions since ZANU-PF won an election in 2000 but he says he is being punished for seizing land from white farmers to resettle landless blacks.
Mugabe remains fit and defiant for his age but since the formation of a unity government last year, he has eased up on the rhetoric against the West and local opponents.
However, his political marriage with Tsvangirai is troubled by tension over how to share executive power and the pace of democratic reforms.
Last month, Zimbabwe suspended moves to draw up a new constitution because of political bickering over funding, dealing a blow to hopes for free and fair elections after the adoption of the charter.
In a recorded interview on the eve of his birthday, Mugabe vowed the unity government would not collapse.
Analysts said that, in a fair election, Mugabe was likely to lose to Tsvangirai, but after ZANU-PF’s defeat in March 2008, the leader was likely to rely more on his political shock troops — independence war veterans with a history of violence against rivals — to win.
“The question many are asking is ‘will Mugabe become Zimbabwe’s life president?’, Masunungure said. “Zimbabweans may as well be reconciled to that possible reality.” Reuters