In his mind, Mugabe knows the game is up, no amount of posturing will change that

HARARE – Mingling among the tinsel and other trappings of Christmas, the men and women who constitute the backbone of Zanu-PF swayed to old party songs.

Many wore the party’s colours – black, green, yellow and red – and bore the image of President Robert Mugabe.

Mr Mugabe – the man they have chosen to lead them for the past 30 years – this weekend received a mandate to continue for another five.

With such a strong presence of Zanu-PF at the rally venue, it was hard to imagine that this was where last year’s power-sharing deal was thrashed out.

It was a deal born out of necessity, given Zanu-PF’s dismal performance at the polls, and a deal which forced it into an unhappy marriage with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Ten months on from the formation of that "inclusive government", and Zanu-PF has made it clear that it is "raring to go", rallying its political troops for elections which Mr Mugabe warned were "just around the corner".

But despite the rhetoric, the party knows that were it to go to the country tomorrow, it would be unlikely to win outright.

Factionalism

The key partners in the unity government have little incentive to push for elections just now.

Though a temporary arrangement, it may have possibly two more years of life left, so elections are unlikely to be as close as the headlines in the state-owned press suggest.

“We have deferred the amendments because they are too many,” said Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Zanu PF secretary for Legal Affairs.

“We cannot finish them at this congress. But this does not mean we have dropped them, we can always discuss the amendments at the Central Committee meetings according to the existing constitution.”

Zanu PF insiders say the decision to defer the discussions on the constitution were meant to allow the debate to be kept within a manageable group where the veteran leader can reign on dissenters.

“In terms of what was supposed to be done, it’s as good as this was a one day congress.

“Most of the issues which we expected to be tackled were either deferred or dropped from the agenda,” an insider said.

“All this is because of the leadership’s fear of a revolt from people who wanted to challenge what is now common practice by the leadership to subvert internal democracy.” Mr Mugabe (85) has survived this far by balancing competing factions in his party and through charisma.

Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe in parliament, 2 Dec

Zimbabwe’s "inclusive government" was formed 10 months ago

A recent survey by Zimbabwe’s Mass Public Opinion Institute found that just 10% of the population of Mashonaland Central – once a Zanu-PF stronghold – would vote for Mr Mugabe. It is a sign of the times.

One observer at the congress described Mr Mugabe as a "president in distress", trying to rein in a party showing signs of factionalism and divisions along ethnic lines.

Certainly, in the days leading up to the event there have been tussles between various cliques in Zanu-PF jostling for control.

But Mr Mugabe issued a stern warning. In a moment of unprecedented candour, he told delegates that their party was "eating itself", playing into the hands of the opposition.

Rapturous applause followed the announcement that Jonathan Moyo was firmly back in the party fold.

The former information minister, a man credited as the architect of some of the most repressive legislation curtailing freedom of speech, now occupies a powerful position in the party’s central committee – a party he was kicked out of back in 2005.

It is hard to judge the motive behind this move, but Mr Mugabe was clear that no man or woman is bigger than the party.

He knows that ambitious figures are trying to position themselves for a post-Mugabe era.

Nevertheless, looking stronger than ever, the president gave no hint of any intention to step down.

Uncertain future

Outside the congress, urban Zimbabweans generally accept that the country is in a better shape than it was a year ago.

There is food on the supermarket shelves, civil servants are now getting paid and the crippling queues at the banks have vanished.

Delegate at Zanu-PF rally in Harare

Zanu-PF delegates were told to prepare for their party’s comeback

But although the introduction of the US dollar may have afforded Zimbabwe some stability, the future is still unclear, and people remain nervous about speaking out.

Outstanding issues from last year’s power-sharing deal – the so-called Global Political Agreement – have still to be implemented.

And the party membership is urging Zanu-PF not to give any more ground at the negotiating table, until targeted sanctions imposed by the West are lifted.

Overall, it has been a defensive few days for Zanu-PF with new faces on the executive but very few new ideas.

Delegates have been sent home with the president’s speech ringing in their ears.

His message: that they must prepare their party for a massive comeback, once the life of the inclusive government expires.

Zimbabwe’s long time ruler President Robert Mugabe has built a reputation as an astute and cunning politician.

For close to three decades he has held onto the reigns in the once promising Southern African country through a well oiled system of patronage and brutal suppression of dissent.

But at the weekend he was the first to admit that the game is up.

His Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF), which has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 is disintegrating into tribal fiefdoms.

The party’s 5th National Congress ended on Saturday evening without any agreement on crucial amendments to the party’s constitution, which has a bearing on the selection of  Mr Mugabe’s successor.

One of the major constitutional proposals is a demand by party members for the scrapping of a clause that ensures that the party votes along tribal lines for the top posts in the presidium.

Members from the south western parts of the country want the position of party chairman and first vice president reserved for former members of the Patriotic Front – Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF Zapu).

PF Zapu, which signed a Unity Accord with Zanu PF in 1987, had its strongholds in the Ndebele speaking southern parts.

However, some provinces are accusing Mr Mugabe of concentrating power in his Zezuru tribe and want the quota system to be done away with.

However, as he heads into the twilight of his career, keeping his lieutenants from competing for his post has become even harder.

This has come at a heavy cost for his party already shaken by the defeat it suffered at the hands of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in last year’s elections.

Addressing more than 10,000 party supporters at the bi-annual congress, Mr Mugabe admitted for the first time that he lost elections and blamed it on mounting factionalism.

“The reason why we lost in March last year was because of factions,” he said. “When it comes to elections, the party strangles itself.

The next election is expected in 2011 after a new constitution is drafted that is expected to guarantee a fair vote. The poll could otherwise be in 2013 if the unity government runs its full five-year term.

Mr Mugabe may find it harder to secure the endorsement of his party to contest the next presidential election, when he will be nearly 90 years and in the twilight of a political career spanning more than five decades.