Publicly, ZANU-PF remains steadfast in its support of 85-year-old Mugabe, who took the party’s helm 35 years ago, at the height of the guerrilla war against the white-minority Rhodesian regime.
Once revered for guiding Zimbabwe to independence in 1980, the party is now reviled as the architect of the country’s demise, after a decade of economic freefall and political violence.
"ZANU-PF will come out of the congress still limping," said Takura Zhangazha, country director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa said.
"They won’t come out with a pragmatic approach to revitalise the party," he said.
On Thursday Robert Mugabe summoned his Zanu-PF party’s provincial chairpersons to whip them into line and force them to accept the candidates nominated by the provinces and endorsed by the party’s politburo for the party’s presidium.
The meeting followed continued disgruntlement among some leaders who are demanding the reopening of nominations to the post of Zanu-PF chairman during the ongoing congress.
“President Mugabe is keen to paper the differences within the party and avoid a situation where some mischievous chairpersons spring up from the floor during congress and nominate different persons from those already endorsed by the politburo,” said a Zanu-PF official Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He wants to make sure he whips provincial chairpersons into line so that there are no surprises during the elective stages of the congress.”
Soon after the two-hour long meeting Mugabe attended a central committee meeting starting.
The Zanu-PF national congress is held once every five years.
Another fresh wave of anti-Robert Mugabe text messages caused a stir in Harare on Thursday evening, with the party’s rebel groups urging party delegates attending congress to ditch him, amid reports of turmoil in the embattled party.
After independence, Mugabe steadily grew the party’s power, but this year was forced into a unity government with his leading rival Morgan Tsvangirai, now the prime minister.
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) forced ZANU-PF into the minority in parliament for the first time in elections last year.
Tsvangirai also defeated Mugabe in the first round of the presidential race, but pulled out of the run-off as the nation descended into political unrest, which rights groups say was fuelled largely by ZANU-PF.
The party has been riven by internal squabbles over who should eventually succeed Mugabe, who has already been endorsed as the candidate in the next elections slated for 2013, when he will be 89 years old.
But analysts say there’s no sign that the party is ready to tackle its challenges, much less turn around years of crisis that have left millions chronically dependent on foreign food aid.
The veteran leader is expected to officially open the congress on Friday. Officially the delegates are to discuss the state of the party, the unity government, work on a new constitution and proposed media reforms.
In reality, little debate is expected, analysts said.
"There will be no noise during the congress, and there will be no meaningful debate," said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the pro-democracy group National Constitutional Assembly.
"ZANU-PF has been divided for some time," he told AFP, adding that it had been "weakened for some time." Mugabe played factions within the party off each other to maintain control, but he’s largely ignored the feud over his succession, which has only worsened tensions, Madhuku said.
"We have seen provincial chairmen resigning and that’s an indication that he is not in touch with what is happening in the party and on the ground."
Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University, said the party is now suffering because it has never fostered a culture of debate and openess, leaving divisions to fester underground.
"Mugabe has built a cult personality in ZANU-PF," Zhou said.
"The main problem is that the culture of debate is limited.
There are people who are aggrieved who will not be able to speak out."
Opinion polls show that ZANU-PF will likely lose any new election, although the party retains significant support, especially in rural areas.
Zhou said the party divisions will make it even harder to win the next polls.
"The question is, are the losers prepared to accept defeat?" he said.
"Knowing ZANU-PF, it will most unlikely accept defeat."