analysisBy Simukai Tinhu
In Zimbabwe, the end of Robert Mugabe's leadership of both his political party and the country is fast approaching.
Ahead of the party's congress in December 2014, where a new leadership is expected to be elected, pretenders to his throne have been taking advantage of his diminished resistance due to advanced age and failing health to openly position themselves for the succession.
These increasingly open struggles are something new in Zimbabwe's post-colonial political history and the clearest sign yet that Mugabe will stand down in 2014.
In recent weeks Zimbabweans have watched as power struggles turned vicious and a war of words broke out between the contending factions - the two groups publicly accusing each other of voter intimidation and electoral fraud during the latest party elections.
Such behaviour prompted ZANU-PF's national commissar, Webster Shamu, to effectively gag party members from discussing the succession issue at the party's 14th Annual People's Conference that took place just before Christmas.
Moderates versus Old Guard?
At the centre of the struggle for supremacy in ZANU-PF are two major factional groups. One is the purportedly pro-business and bloc seen as attempting to push ZANU-PF politics to the political centre ground, and in doing so make peace with the international community.
The 'moderates' as this faction is sometimes known as, are associated with the leadership of the current vice president, Joyce Mujuru.
The other group is the so called 'hard-liners' or the 'old guard' - a camp that is led by the current minister of Justice, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
This elite group has dominated Zimbabwe's political scene since the 1980s and many fear that should this faction prevail, this will mean a continuation of the elder generation's causes and politics: anti-western rhetoric and a continued spiral towards authoritarianism.
The latest episode in the contest between the two groups played out in regional or provincial elections that took place across the country at the end of last year, resulting in Mujuru's group clinching wins in nine out of ten provinces. This has led many to conclude that her runway 'victory' marks a dramatic turning point in ZANU-PF's succession politics.
To understand the optimism of Mujuru's supporters, one must grasp the assumed central role of these elections in choosing the next party leadership.
The leadership of ZANU-PF, which will take over until 2018 in the event of Mugabe stepping down as president in the coming year, will be elected during a national congress that will take place in December 2014.
The recently elected provincial chairpersons head the provincial coordinating committees, which play a crucial role in the nomination of the party leadership, including the presidential nominee.
A presidential aspirant requires nominations in at least six of the ten provinces to land the top job. Mujuru's emphatic win explains why many see her as well positioned to become the next party leader and consequently the country's president. However, this understanding is problematic at many levels.
First, it assumes that provincial leadership allegiances are static and that they will not change until the congress in December 2014.
In politics, fortunes sway back and forth, and in the coming year, there is likely to be a lot of movement with party stalwarts switching factional allegiances.
Mujuru's group is also internally vulnerable. Unlike Mnangagwa's faction, the cohesiveness of her group is questionable.
Indeed, the vice president is at the helm of an assortment of different small groups within ZANU-PF. Mujuru has managed to forge a consensus of grassroots activists, young politicians clamouring for a new kind of politics, those who regard themselves as 'moderates', and the 'pragmatic' old guard, who do not agree with the hard-line politics of Mnangagwa (led by the current defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi).
The vice president will need to maintain this consensus amongst these more or less autonomous groups until December 2014.
Time will tell whether she has the fortitude to ward off inevitable aggressive overtures by Mnangagwa's group to pressure or persuade less committed loyalists to defect.
Second, the understanding also assumes that Mnangagwa's group has thrown in the towel and accepted that it will play second fiddle in ZANU-PF politics. This is not the case.
Jonathan Moyo, a senior ZANU-PF operative aligned to the Mnangagwa camp, warned that important battles lie ahead, telling the media that 'provincial elections do not lead to presidential elections, and those who believe so will do it at their own peril'. For the hardliners the battle has barely begun.
There is also the possibility that if Mnangagwa becomes convinced that he is likely to be defeated, his plan to succeed Mugabe might be predicated on unpleasant tactics.
The 2004 Tsholotsho declaration, in which his group attempted to use subversive means to derail Mujuru's ascendancy to the vice presidency, provides a template of the methods that he might resort to.
Third, this understanding also assumes that succession is exclusively predicated on electoral success. This logic badly misreads ZANU-PF succession politics.
In ZANU-PF, popularity does not add up to real political gains - there are other more important forces that shape the leadership contest. Some of Mujuru's allies seem to understand this and have tempered their initial euphoria accordingly.
The assumption of party leadership, and ultimately presidency of the country, will be predicated on highly complex and carefully calibrated manoeuvres that include enlisting the endorsement of the securocrats, and most importantly, securing the blessing of Mugabe.
Why is it that Mnangagwa's faction does not appear to be rattled despite 'the moderates" seemingly unbreakable majority in the provincial elections? The answer lies in the unspoken centrality of the security sector, that ancient sinful fulcrum of ZANU-PF party politics.
Historically, ZANU-PF's relationship with the security sector has been seen as symbiotic, but sometime after 2000 power started to shift gradually from the party to the securocrats.
Today, the securocrats are seen as controlling much of the political system in Mugabe's party making the ascent to power incomplete without the military's endorsement. The securocrats might not have a vote, but it appears they have a candidate.
The securocrats are likely to choose a leader who will protect or enhance their narrow interests. In this case, Mnangagwa who has cultivated a much 'healthier' relationship with the intelligence community and the military through his leadership of the ministris of defence and state security has the upper hand.
These institutions are likely to have little obvious interest in aiding Mujuru's rise, whose power base (popular support within the party) might conflict with their interests.
Without the securocrats by her side, Mujuru might struggle to aggressively advance against Mnangagwa's group.
These party struggles are also taking place under the watchful eye of its patriarch Robert Mugabe who continues to dominate ZANU-PF.
Every aspect of the party's functioning is affected by his views and decisions. The party almost always bends to his will, and ultimately his preferences and predilections will have preponderance on who will succeed him.
Indeed, tracing the course of ZANU-PF's history, three distinct and important successions to party leadership - Simon Vengai Muzenda, Joseph Musika and John Nkomo - show that the ascendancy of these men to the top of ZANU-PF hierarchy was either at the instigation of Mugabe or after his endorsement.
In other words, examining Mugabe's intentions is like to provide a good understanding of who will succeed him.
Who is Mugabe's choice?
Mugabe's choice will be a leader who can unite the party. His manoeuvrings will be motivated by concerns for his legacy and efforts to preserve his political power - he is likely to continue playing a huge part in party politics from behind the scenes.
The person who seems to fit the bill on all counts is Mnangagwa.
Not only does Mugabe retain a close bond with Mnangagwa, who has long been considered his blue eyed boy, but Mnangagwa has correspondingly always been an absolutely loyal follower of Mugabe.
Their relationship was cemented when Mnangagwa as Minister of State Security quelled the rebellion in Matabeleland and Midlands regions that resulted in the deaths of thousands in the 1980s.
That Mnangagwa is a great favourite is also clearly established in other several ways. When Mugabe held a press conference on the eve of the July election he was flanked by his press secretary and Mnangagwa. Mugabe was forced to deny that he was announcing to the world that the then defence minister was likely to be his successor.
Also, Mugabe has always assigned important government ministries to Mnangagwa and these have included state security, home affairs, defence and justice.
Finally, Mnangagwa is reportedly one of the few ZANU-PF officials allowed to maintain direct and close ties to Zimbabwe's security community, a privilege not yet granted to Mujuru.
What about Mujuru?
Mugabe considers Mujuru a light weight who will struggle to contain the opposition, foreign and factional interests within the country. ZANU-PF's image as a fearless revolutionary party would appear to be under threat should Mujuru win the leadership.
Mugabe's ties to Mujuru have been opportunistic, only maintaining close links with her because of her powerful late husband who masterminded her meteoric rise within the ZANU-PF hierarchy. Mugabe's determined silence despite Mujuru's recent 'wins' in the provincial elections is indeed telling.
Despite his announcement that the party will choose his successor, it is unlikely that Mugabe will gamble by leaving such an important decision to the whims of the voters.
To date, he has desisted from giving obvious clues of his preference, limiting his involvement to repeatedly warning warring factions that their infighting was hurting the country's interests. In other words, his state of mind is still unknown.
Superior Mnangagwa faction?
In this 'civil war' Mnangagwa also appears to have an upper hand as his group has some brilliant political boots on the ground - the most important being Jonathan Moyo and Patrick Chinamasa. This is a formidable team that has over the years delivered electoral victories for Mugabe.
Mujuru's faction is generally considered to be the weaker. The most conspicuous politician lining up behind her is Didymus Mutasa, a politburo member who many say constitutes no threat.
The same could be said about Rugare Gumbo, ZANU-PF spokesperson, who has been an outsider until recently. Without her husband, whose death is regarded as being the result of a messy and vicious power struggle, Mujuru is extremely vulnerable.
However, regardless of whoever takes over, it is unlikely that a single person will dominate the party in the manner that Mugabe has done for almost fifty years.
In the unlikely event of Mujuru winning, she will struggle to exert full control over an extremely power-conscious rival faction of Mnangagwa.
She will also have to concede considerable power in order to secure the electoral experience of his faction, if she is to have a good shot at winning the 2018 general elections.
On the other hand, if Mnangagwa takes over, he will have to be generous to Mujuru in order to retain the support of the party's lower ranks, considered to be the vice president's power base. His faction will need their support in order to win elections at national level.
Thus, whichever group triumphs, it is unlikely that it will immediately drive the other into outer darkness. It is more likely that the two leaders will attempt to share power on a more or less equal basis, at least in the short-term, resulting in a 'dual power regime' within ZANU-PF, with the party leader role being largely nominal.
Mugabe has the final say
Vice president Mujuru might have come off very well in the provincial elections, but when other dimensions are factored in, the robustness of her position in the race appears superficial.
This not only shows that Mujuru's electoral victories can be a misleading clue to the character of ZANU-PF succession, but also that Mugabe's succession will not be straightforward.
Ultimately, to understand who will be the future ZANU-PF leader is by definition to guess Mugabe's intentions.
While paying lip service to the importance of internal democratic processes, Mugabe knows who will succeed him, and for now he has decided to make that information proprietary.
Simukai Tinhu is a political analyst based in London. Follow him @STinhu