HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was endorsed again by his party to stand for elections expected next year, but analysts say even for a veteran political survivor, the 87-year-old leader will find it harder to convince voters to extend his rule after 32 years in power.
Mugabe, they said, would face young voters, many born after independence from Britain in 1980, who may not be overly impressed with his party’s tales of its leadership role in the liberation struggle and are instead desperate to find jobs in the country which has the world’s highest unemployment rate.
ZANU-PF members want Mugabe to hand over the reins to a younger leader, but nobody has ever openly challenged him due to a generous political patronage system and his ability to patiently wear down opponents and keep them guessing on his next move.
“Mugabe has kept going by looking after everybody in some way, balancing various interests, managing the warring factions fighting over who takes over from him and cynically making himself the glue holding ZANU-PF together,” said Eldred Masunungure, political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
“For ZANU-PF, he is both a liability and an asset in the sense of unifying the party, but is also a big liability for them in electoral terms because he is difficult to sell to the voters as representing any new direction,” he said.
Mugabe told his party conference he would step up a drive to force foreign-owned firms to sell majority stakes to blacks, following his seizures of white-owned farms in the past decade.
Analysts said ZANU-PF nominated Mugabe because it still has to solve a long-standing succession battle in its ranks, and the party has grudgingly accepted that Mugabe has manoeuvred himself into a position where he could end up president for life.
Mugabe would be an improbable 93-year-old when he finishes a five-year-term if he wins an election in 2012 against main rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who charges that ZANU-PF has rigged and robbed him of victory in three major polls since 2000.
The privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent newspaper said in an editorial that ZANU-PF had missed an opportunity at the conference to discuss its leadership and policy failures.
“Instead they chose to bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich in the midst of a sandstorm,” the editorial said.
Political analysts say Mugabe’s allies are pressing for early elections, which are only due in 2013 when Mugabe would be 89, fearing he may not cope with the pressure of campaigning, and also to take advantage of what they see as a weakening opposition.
A June 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said Mugabe had prostate cancer that had spread to other organs.
He was apparently urged by his physician to step down in 2008 but has stayed in the job.
In an interview with Reuters a year ago, Mugabe denied he was dying of cancer but local media reports say he is taking regular trips to Singapore for medical treatment.
“I think it’s fair to say that Mugabe might be seeing some opportunities in taking on Tsvangirai sooner rather than later, with minimum democratic reforms, and increasing questions over Tsvangirai and the MDC’s capacity,” said Lovemore Madhuku of the political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.
Tsvangirai, 59, has found himself fighting scandals over his private life. In the past few months, a 23-year-old woman has claimed he fathered a child with her, and another woman said she was pregnant by him.
The stories have damaged his public image, but analysts say Tsvangirai, who lost his wife in a car accident after his MDC formed a coalition with ZANU-PF in 2009, still remained reasonably popular though vulnerable if other scandals emerge.
Tsvangirai has issued a public apology for his indiscretions but blames Mugabe’s state security agents of setting him up in dirty plots aimed at ruining his political career.
Political analysts say Tsvangirai remains a big threat to Mugabe because Zimbabwe’s young voters are frustrated with ZANU-PF policies, which many critics blame for an economic crisis which left Zimbabwe in 2008 with hyper-inflation of 500 billion percent, food shortages and 4,000 dead from a cholera outbreak.
Mugabe blames the economic crisis on sanctions by Western countries opposed to ZANU-PF, but will find it hard to convince voters that any improvements in the economy are not the result of the MDC’s role in government.
Mugabe’s nomination points to his party continuing with controversial policies criticised for stifling investment.
“We are custodians of the national interest, and our historic mission is to defend our heritage,” a combative Mugabe said at the ZANU-PF congress as he rallied his party for election battle.
Although Mugabe has been calling for a peaceful election, the opposition fears ZANU-PF hardliners led by the war veterans and youth brigades who normally run his campaigns will be tempted to resort to violence as the tried and tested method.
“Violence is ZANU-PF’s default mode, and the talk of peaceful elections has to pass a practical test,” said Douglas Mwonzora, spokesman for Tsvangirai’s MDC party.
Tsvangirai says he will win any free poll, and pins his hopes on the new generation of voters he says are tired of war tales.
At least 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s 13 million population is under 30. But nothing is clinical in this calculation as some of these potential voters are abroad and unlikely to return after fleeing Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.
“Besides his health problems, Mugabe has a demographic problem to overcome - and it’s probably going to boil down to an argument on whether at his age he should be contesting elections at all,” Masunungure said.“ For all his skills, this is an argument that ZANU-PF is going to find very hard to sell.”
Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Marius Bosch and Rosalind Russell