GWERU, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s long-serving President Robert Mugabe vowed to fight like a wounded beast to retain power in elections due next year after his party formally endorsed him on Saturday as candidate despite his advanced age and reports of ill health.
Mugabe, who turns 89 years next February, has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980 but denies he has been receiving treatment for prostate cancer in Singapore over the last two years.
Closing a two-day ZANU-PF annual conference that as expected named him as its top candidate for a presidential and parliamentary poll that must be held by next September, Mugabe urged his party to overcome the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
The veteran leader -- who now shares power with Tsvangirai in an uneasy coalition following a disputed election in 2008 which was marred by violence blamed on ZANU-PF militants -- said ZANU-PF had nearly lost power by under-estimating its rivals.
“We are now like a wounded beast, and lets fight back and win all our power back,” he said to a cheering 5,000-strong crowd. “We must mobilise ourselves for a resounding outcome, and the year 2013 will be the year of electoral success,” he added.
But Mugabe said ZANU-PF should win next year’s vote on its nationalist policies, urging party supporters to avoid violence.
“We do not have to take up spears. Let our policies be our weapons,” he said.
On Friday, Mugabe threatened to call an election before the completion of constitutional reforms if his rivals in the unity government dragged their feet over the charter-drafting process.
ZANU-PF, he said, would also press ahead with a drive to force foreign-owned firms including mines and banks to sell majority shares to local black people.
Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s old rival, says ZANU-PF will not win any free and fair vote and wants a new constitution and electoral and media reforms after the violent and disputed poll in 2008 that was condemned by much of the world.
But Finance Minister Tendai Biti, secretary general of the MDC, told Reuters that Zimbabwe would not be ready for a presidential election until at least June because it needed the reforms to ensure a fair and undisputed poll.
ZANU-PF and the MDC are haggling over presidential powers in the new constitution. Mugabe accused his opponents of delaying tactics to avoid elections.
Mugabe showed no visible signs of ill-health at the two-day conference, spending more than an hour at a time addressing both the opening and closing ceremonies.
Analysts say Mugabe’s now increasing warnings that he will call elections soon is meant to keep his supporters ready for battle although some senior ZANU-PF officials have cast doubt on this timeline, given that a referendum on a new constitution should also precede any election, under the power-sharing deal.
Although Mugabe has been calling for a peaceful election, his opponents fear ZANU-PF hardliners led by war veterans and youth brigades who normally run his campaigns will be tempted to resort to violence as the tried and tested method.
Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Stephen Powell