Mugabe, 87, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, but inconclusive elections three years ago forced him into a unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai, his main rival, who is now prime minister.
Their shaky alliance was meant as a transitional government to oversee the drafting of a more democratic constitution, paving the way to new elections that regional leaders hope would avoid a repeat of the violent 2008 vote.
The process is running a year late, prompting a faction within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party to push for quick elections this year, even though the Southern African Development Community (SADC) insists on a new constitution first.
The summit in Johannesburg Saturday is expected to reinforce the SADC’s decision by setting a new roadmap for completing the charter.
Mugabe met for three hours late on Friday with President Jacob Zuma, according to Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper.
The paper gave no details on the talks, but said that “Zanu-PF insists that if the timelines agreed in the roadmap fit into 2011, then elections should be held this year”.
Mugabe bristles at any outside pressure, and the SADC’s verdict may not sway hardliners within his party, especially military leaders who have publicly called for quicker elections.
“With those who want elections, we are talking of a minority of a minority, but it appears that minority is a powerful one,” said Eldred Masunungure, an analyst from the University of Zimbabwe.
“We heard it from the horse’s mouth when one of the generals said elections should be held this year. The military has the muscle and may be tempted to rail through their preference,” he said.
Part of the urgency comes from mounting concern in his party over Mugabe’s age and health, said Takavafira Zhou, political scientist at Masvingo State University.
“The rallying point in Zanu-PF is Mugabe, who is old, and there is a fear that if the elections are delayed and he dies or for some reason the elections are held without him, Zanu-PF is gone,” said Zhou.
“There is a small group in Zanu-PF who want elections while they still have Mugabe as the unifying figure. They know that Zanu-PF is Mugabe, and Mugabe is Zanu-PF and that without him they are doomed.”
South African mediators in May publicly raised concerns about Mugabe’s health and the succession debate, following reports that he had surgery for prostate cancer in Singapore early this year.
He has denied the reports, and no one within the party is willing to publicly consider a future without Mugabe.
“Has anyone changed his or her father just because he is old? Until your father dies, only then can you have a stepfather – that is that,” army Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba said recently.
But two top Mugabe allies, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and central bank governor Gideon Gono, have both cast doubt on the wisdom of quick polls.
Election officials say a new version of the wildly outdated voters roll – an estimated one third of the people on it are dead – will never be ready this year. The finance ministry says it has no money for elections.
Tsvangirai wants the SADC to support elections no earlier than 2012 and is calling for reform of the security forces, accused by Amnesty International of complicity in a new wave of violence against his supporters this year.