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Dec 11, 2015 | 12:14 GMT

Zimbabwe's Ruling Party Begins Its Congress Divided

Zimbabwe's Ruling Party Begins its Congress Divided
(JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party will hold its annual congress Dec. 11-13. The agenda will be heavily focused on the country's struggling economy. However, determining the party's course for the next few years and the succession plan for party leader and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe take highest priority.

Zimbabwe is in dire financial straits; its treasury is essentially bankrupt and its national government can barely pay its civil servants. The ruling party's inconsistent policies have constrained efforts to reconcile with European and U.S. donors. As a result, foreign financial support has been too sparse for Harare to reinvigorate the country's economy in any meaningful way. Engagements with other global powers, such as Russia and China, have not led to any immediate developments that will provide relief to the former breadbasket of southern Africa.

The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, in power since Zimbabwe's independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, enters its annual congress mired in uncertainty about its future. Its main objective is to survive from season to season, but an emerging leadership conflict is troubling for the party and its followers. Mugabe is 91 years old and in frail health, but his position is one of unparalleled privilege. The country's key security apparatus is also loaded with appointees beholden to him. The question of who could replace Mugabe as party leader has circulated for years.

At the moment, Mugabe's powerful and experienced vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is well positioned to take over the reins. He has overseen some important portfolios in his career, in the influential defense and justice ministries, and also as director of the country's intelligence organization. Mnangagwa has managed to insert himself into Mugabe's inner circle, gaining his approval in the process. Yet over his storied career, Mnangagwa has amassed political enemies within and without the party — enemies who will obstruct his path to the presidency when Mugabe eventually leaves office.

The ruling party lacks a uniform or even united position, which will inevitably damage its future. Mugabe is likely to demand more time in office; a request that will not be refused. But when he eventually vacates the presidency, either through choice or when forced to do so because of failing health, there will be extensive negotiations within the party to effect a transfer of power. Support for Mnangagwa is not guaranteed. Instead, factions will rapidly emerge, some with lingering loyalties to former Vice President Joyce Mujuru, others harboring hope for first lady Grace Mugabe — whose position as head of the ruling party's Women's League strengthens the Mugabes' ties to the government. The expected competition to fill Zimbabwe's vacant presidency will prevent a smooth handover of power, and though Mnangagwa has strengthened his position and ability to take over, his path is not certain.

Beyond the rampant infighting within the ruling party over the country's leadership, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front must come to terms with its declining popularity and the abysmal economy if it is to safeguard its prominence in Harare. Some party factions, possibly including Mnangagwa and his allies, are considering incorporating political opposition members and ideas into the government, ahead of political and economic reforms.

There is a desire for clearer lines of governance and a more unified approach, but first there would need to be an understanding that would appease officials from the ruling party — that they would face no prosecutorial threats in the future. This could prove to be the main difference between a possible national unity government this season and the unity government in power from 2008-2013, when Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was prime minister. If an agreement could be struck, there is an outside chance that Zimbabwe's ruling party and opposition elements could form a new government at some point. However, it would not happen until after the ruling party emerges from its current spate of infighting.

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