VICTORIA FALLS (Zimbabwe) • Zimbabwe's ruling party at the weekend publicly endorsed 91-year-old President Robert Mugabe as its candidate for the 2018 elections - but his visible frailty meant that, backstage, the focus was on his successor.
Concerns over the health of Mr Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 35 years, have lent new urgency to factional battles within his ruling ZANU-PF party.
"The focus is on retaining power or accessing power as a way of securing their gains and privileges," said Mr Godfrey Kanyenze, head of the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe. "They know if they lose power, their farms and businesses will be undermined. That's why we saw the First Lady (Grace Mugabe) joining in the fray."
Mrs Mugabe, 50, was appointed leader of the powerful ZANU-PF women's wing last year and led a campaign that brought about the expulsion of Mr Mugabe's deputy president and possible successor Joice Mujuru. Ms Mujuru is said to be planning to form a new party to contest the elections but, given ZANU-PF's record of vote rigging, analysts say the real battle lies within the ruling party itself.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seen as a front runner, but there are signs that Mr Mugabe and his wife could be planning to keep power within the family. At the party's annual conference at the weekend, the women's wing pressed for a quota system ensuring that one of Mr Mugabe's two deputies be a woman - a post which could go to Mrs Mugabe and put her in pole position to take over.
Mr Mugabe, who has refused to name a successor, called for an end to factionalism at the meeting. "We don't want to hear people saying 'these ones belong to (Second Vice-President Phelekezela) Mphoko, these ones to Mnangagwa'. If all the people belong to factions, who then are mine?"