With no credible successor to unite the quarrelsome factions that threaten to splinter the party, its officials say they need Mugabe, who at 87 has been in power for 31 years, to campaign for yet another five-year term while he still has the strength for a rematch against his established rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 59.
“There’s urgency, real urgency,” said a party insider, speaking anonymously because of the delicacy of the topic. “The old man is not the same as he was.”
Zimbabwe’s neighbors, who helped broker a power-sharing government led by Mugabe and Tsvangirai after a discredited election in 2008, have strongly warned against trying to hold another one too soon. But a separate Mugabe confidant said the party’s power brokers worried that the president would no longer be a plausible candidate by next year.
“Imagine him being supported all the way to the podium to address a rally and him telling the people he is the future of this country,” the Mugabe confidant said. “Even the staunch supporters would not believe that.”
The intensity of the party’s determination to hold an election this year was evident as a newspaper controlled by Mugabe’s party carried out an extraordinary attack on South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, the official mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crisis, after he publicly called for a halt to political violence in the country.
South Africa had long been criticized for coddling Mugabe through a decade of rigged, bloodstained elections, but last week Zuma persuaded regional leaders to endorse assertive, time-consuming efforts to ensure that the next time Zimbabweans voted, they would be able to do so freely and fairly.
“There is no way we can agree to an election in Zimbabwe when the institutions needed to ensure a credible, free and fair election are not in place,” Zuma told. Mugabe and Tsvangirai at the meeting, according to Zuma’s adviser, Lindiwe Zulu. A day later, Mugabe defiantly told his party’s central committee that Zimbabwe’s neighbors should not meddle in its political affairs and urged his followers to prepare for an election. An editorial in The Sunday Mail, a state-controlled newspaper, accused Zuma of duplicity and dishonesty and called him a puppet of the West.
South African officials reacted sharply to the vitriolic, personal attack on the president of the region’s most powerful nation, and Mugabe’s spokesman this week sought to soften Zimbabwe’s tone, saying the editorial was not government policy.
“President Jacob Zuma’s erratic behavior is the stuff of legend,” one of Mugabe’s loyalists wrote in the editorial’s opening line.
Mugabe’s domineering rule has led to the country’s disastrous economic decline, pervasive corruption and an intensely repressive society, but as the centerpiece of the state, there is uncertainty about whether his death would lead to a military coup, a vicious internal battle within his party, ZANU-PF, or some still unforeseen outcome.
“Mugabe’s health is a matter of national instability,” Tsvangirai said. Having been pressured by regional leaders into the power-sharing deal with Mugabe, his political enemy, two years ago, Tsvangirai said of his still dominant partner, “He left the succession way too late, and now there is a scramble between the two main factions ofZanu (PF).”
A Western ambassador here likened this period in one of Africa’s longest-surviving autocracies to the last days of Brezhnev and Franco. It is a time of fevered rumors and back-room plotting. And it has brought a crackdown on pro-democracy civic groups and members of Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The authorities have banned its rallies, rounded up activists and party workers and put truckloads of riot police officers on the streets to head off protests.
The revolutions in North Africa, and particularly South Africa’s support for a no-fly zone in Libya, have unnerved the sprawling spy operation controlled by Mugabe’s party. Dozens of students, trade unionists and activists who had gathered to watch news reports on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were arrested in February and charged with treason, accused of plotting to oust Mugabe.
-New York Times