WHEN President Robert Mugabe asked delegates attending Zanu PF's annual conference in Gweru last weekend to declare 2013 "the year of electoral victory", only a few mumbled a tepid "yes", with the majority remaining muted.
The lukewarm response, which was clearly not lost on Mugabe and other senior party leaders, epitomises the deep lack of confidence ordinary members now have in the party's leadership.
It also reflected this year's conference's low-key nature compared to previous fired-up sessions characterised by glowing rhetoric and feverish demands for elections to end the "dysfunctional" unity government.
Zanu PF resolved at its conferences in Mutare and Bulawayo in 2010 and 2011, respectively, that elections would be held in 2011 and then this year without fail.
The party has again revised its dates, now insisting elections would be held in March 2013 without fail, although it is increasingly becoming clear polls are likely in the second half of 2013.
Mugabe and Zanu PF officials' pronouncements, particularly on elections, and their failure to ensure they are held in response to their menacing demands as was the case prior to the coalition government formation, shows they have lost most of their control and influence of the political situation. Their word is no longer anybody's command.
Zanu PF conferences are clearly fast becoming lacklustre and uninspiring to the party members and sympathisers.
Gone are the days when the conferences, though rubber-stamping platforms where guided democracy prevails, sent ripple effects across the political landscape and served as a barometer of the political situation.
The conferences have now degenerated into mere political calendar events of no real consequence beyond sloganeering, speechifying and high-sounding promises designed to woo an increasingly sceptical electorate.
Revealingly, during the Gweru conference the singing was hardly passionate; there was none of the kongonya dance popular during the liberation struggle which usually characterised Zanu PF gatherings.
The chanting of slogans usually deriding the opposition, seemed half-hearted and mechanical at best. Gone are the days, it seems, when delegates would passionately sing revolutionary songs such as Mbiri Yechigandanga designed to send shivers down the spines of rival political parties with their implied violence.
The conference's lethargic pace was not helped by Mugabe -- whose health is deteriorating due to advanced age -- as he appeared jaded when delivering his speeches. Mugabe appeared drowsy, slurring some of his words while occasionally leaning on the podium as if to support himself.
Senior Zanu PF members privately admitted their annual conferences have now become monotonous with nothing new emerging since Mugabe, at the helm of Zanu PF since 1977, has managed to crush all forms of dissent.
It was evident Zanu PF's failure to resolve the contentious succession issue resulting in fierce factionalism was heavily weighing down on delegates, while high-level corruption continues to erode the party's popularity and legitimacy.
Zanu PF is now deeply divided into two major camps, one reportedly led by Vice-President Joice Mujuru and the other by Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, although the two have of late been strenuously denying leading opposing camps.
The issue of factionalism and succession abruptly flared up during Zanu PF's central committee meeting last week as reported in the Zimbabwe Independent, proving the problem remained a powder keg despite belated attempts to deny its existence.
At the conference many delegates slammed factionalism in what appeared to be an attempt to propitiate Mugabe, with no one daring to tackle the causes of the problem and the attendant succession battle.
Mugabe and senior party officials insisted at the conference factionalism and internal power struggles were rampant and destroying the party. The problem has bedevilled the party since the liberation struggle and has evolved over the years, reaching a crescendo in the run up to the 2004 congress as Mujuru and Mnangagwa battled it out for the post of vice-president.
Mujuru prevailed after serious internal strife, leaving the party fractured and weak.
So deeply-entrenched is the factionalism that a section of the party did not celebrate the construction of the controversial Gweru Convention Centre by Zanu PF's Midlands province, dubbed the "Hall Of Shame", as they deemed it part of Mnangagwa's efforts to boost his image and enhance his prospects in the succession race.
Although most Zanu PF officials are uncomfortable about going for elections with a candidate who would be 89 next February, the party's provinces stampeded over each other to endorse Mugabe as their "sole candidate" in the next elections.
However, judging by the lacklustre conference, Mugabe might yet again have to ride out internal resistance and sabotage during the next elections.
Mugabe was more direct in his criticism of factionalism, even mentioning Mujuru and Mnangagwa by name in his remarks.
"It's said these people belong to Emmerson Mnangagwa and these ones Mujuru," said Mugabe. "The people are saying that and that's the way they see it. That is dangerous, absolutely dangerous. Let the people see your leadership as unifying them; the leader should see the people as all his people."
Mugabe said "during our time" people never used to campaign for posts, in what seemed to be a realisation that he had overstayed his welcome and belongs to a bygone era.
Apart from Mugabe's forthright remarks on factionalism, as well as behind-the-scenes manoeuvres on succession, the conference sent alarm bells ringing that Zanu PF might again lose the next elections unless it pulls out all the stops to arrest internal strife and discontent.