ZIMBABWE – Facing would-be successors and widespread unpopularity, President Robert Mugabe will gather his ZANU-PF party for a congress this week, hoping to plot a path to victory at upcoming general elections.
The annual conference, which begins on Friday, is the last before much-anticipated national polls scheduled for next year.
Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since independence from Britain 32 years ago, hopes to use the elections to tighten his grip on power.
The veteran leader is currently locked in a shaky power-sharing government with longtime rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
And he faces a series of other challenges: The dire state of the country has made his rule deeply unpopular, and his allies have begun jockeying to replace the 88-year-old despite the fact that he is officially the party candidate.
Analysts say Mugabe’s party has little to entice voters, and will likely deliver a populist message of black empowerment, even if his so-called “indigenisation” policy aimed at redistributing wealth to black Zimbabweans has often served the president’s cronies more than the country.
“This time their message is centred around indigenisation, but it’s meaningless to the majority of the population struggling to earn a living,” said Takavafira Zhou, a political analyst from Masvingo State University.
The controversial indigenisation law was passed two years ago, forcing all foreign-owned firms to cede a 51-percent share to locals in what Mugabe says is a reversal of imbalances created during colonial rule.
But in fact the programme is about “self-enrichment for the elite in ZANU-PF,” said Earnest Mudzengi, an independent analyst.
Running under the theme “indigenise, empower, develop and create jobs”, the two-day congress will be held at the party’s 5,000-seater conference centre on the outskirts of the central city of Gweru.
The conference comes as the party battles to patch up after factionalism cost it dearly in the 2008 general elections, where for the first time since independence in 1980 it lost its majority in parliament.
Critics say ZANU-PF as a party has run out of fresh ideas.
“ZANU-PF is a sunset political movement which is not forward-moving. They cannot even discuss critical issues like succession, which is affecting the party,” said Mudzengi.
Little new is expected to come out of the conference, which “will likely be discussing the same old rhetoric of fighting imperialists and preaching about indigenisation, which they do not have the capacity to implement,” according to Mudzengi.
If free and fair elections are held “under the current state of the economy and public perception, ZANU-PF will lose,” he said.
Analyst Takavafira Zhou said that because the party’s chances of victory “are next to nothing”, a repeat of the violence that rocked the 2008 elections is probable.
“It’s highly likely that they will manipulate the flawed electoral system and use violence to force themselves back in office,” said Zhou.
ZANU-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo dismissed allegations his party would resort to violence.
“We are clear of our policy that we do not approve violence,” he said.
Gumbo said he is confident the party’s policies will deliver electoral success.
“We have developed policies such as the land reform and indigenisation policies that we believe will secure votes for us,” he said.
“Our policies are sought by ordinary people.”
Mugabe was forced into the current coalition government to stop a wave of violence around the disputed 2008 vote and halt an economic tailspin. Regional leaders brokered the power-sharing deal to avoid a full-scale conflict.
The deal also pushed for political, security, electoral and media reforms, which observers say have been slow in coming and limited in scope.
“We haven’t seen reforms in the country, especially in the electoral sector,” said independent analyst Mudzengi, who said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is still staffed with ZANU-PF sympathisers.
“The electoral system may be manipulated in favour of ZANU-PF,” he said.