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THE ruling Zanu PF party could be heading for a devastating split as bickering between rival factions jostling to succeed ageing ruler Robert Mugabe escalates ahead of a key congress.

Over the years, Zanu PF's leaders have papered over the cracks forged by the battle to succeed 90-year-old Mugabe, playing down factional feuding even while acknowledging it cost them dearly in the 2008 elections.

But the arrival of Mugabe's wife Grace on the political stage has thrown the battle into the open.

From the bully pulpit she has launched searing attacks on her opponents, including Vice-President Joice Mujuru whom she singled out for fomenting factional fights.

Many see Grace Mugabe's attacks and the clashes between rival camps as a harbinger of fighting that will characterise the party's congress in December.

"The fights have reached a threshold and it's going to widen the fissures in Zanu PF," said Charles Mangongera of the political think-tank Porterhill Research.

"It's difficult to think they will find each other. The party is headed for some kind of rupture. Post-December, it won't be the same Zanu PF we have always known."

Mujuru and powerful Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa - who in the past controlled the secret police and military - are seen as the leading contenders to replace Mugabe when he steps down or dies.

Independent political analyst Gift Mambipiri said Grace Mugabe was propping up a faction fighting to discredit Mujuru.
"Grace is being used by the other faction to fight Mujuru and perhaps to secure her own interests when Mugabe is gone," Mambipiri said.

But Mujuru remains popular among the party's grassroots.

"They will use her to get what they want and dump her. But whatever the plan, Mujuru will win and if they rig the vote at the congress, the party will break apart and Mujuru will go with her sympathisers."

Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University, said a split would hurt the already moribund economy.
"Because of the internal squabbles, all energy will now be channelled to politicking, while the economy suffers."
After a long and costly battle against Mugabe the opposition may not be able to capitalise, Zhou added.

"While Zanu PF is disintegrating, there is no consolidation of power by the opposition so the split may not be of much benefit."

A dynasty in the heir?
Grace Mugabe's entry into politics has also raised speculation that Mugabe could be grooming his wife to take over when he dies.

In December she is set to become a member of the politburo - the party's supreme decision-making body - and would play an active role in the choice of her husband's successor.

While her hangers-on have showered her with names such as "Dr Amai (mother)", "unifier" and "queen of queens", Grace Mugabe's rallies in the country's 10 provinces showed a party in turmoil.

At her rally in the eastern city of Mutare, youths from rival factions chanted slogans denouncing each other and exchanged blows, forcing the police to intervene.

At her final rally in the town of Marondera, riot police stepped in to restrain fighting youths.
December's meeting is expected to confirm Robert Mugabe as the party's leader, but the fight for positions on the powerful politburo could be decisive for the future. - afp

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