By Takura Zhangazha*
There is no doubt that the ruling Zanu Pf party is now in definite leadership transition. It will of-course deny this with abstract consistency but it is all too apparent. And the media is correct to speculate as much as it reasonably can about the ambitions of first lady Grace Mugabe or the reality of internal factions. Even if she refers to the stories written about her as ‘rubbish’, as she did at her rally in Rushinga. Or where the two vice presidents (Mnangagwa and Mphoko) remain either mum about their own ambitions or pliant in serving at the mercy of the president.
What is however apparent is that Zanu PF's succession battles are now at their peak. And yes, the key players in these battles remain the first lady and vice president Mnangagwa. But however it goes beyond the personal. There are structural/formal and broader political legitimacy issues that those that aspire to succeed President Mugabe have to contend with.
The first lady, in her recent and future rallies is seeking to address the issue of her own national popular legitimacy. Meeting thousands of Zanu Pf supporters is a sure sign to those that would oppose her ambitions or at least her ‘kingmaker’ role that she is increasingly unassailable. And probably directly unchallengeable. In this, she is pursuing what can be called a ‘heart and minds’ political campaign with grassroots supporters of the ruling party. Handing out basic and other commodities to these supporters essentially means she will be etched in their memories for some time, even if the goods are not fairly distributed. Also making reference to the fact that everyone participated in the liberation struggle, not just war veterans, is intended to counter the claim that only a war veteran can succeed her husband.
The vice presidents can only hang on to her coattails on this particular strategy. Either they have to attend the rallies, as does VP Mphoko, or not attempt any of their own, hence VP Mnangwagwa’s caution.
All of this means that the only other person that will get a resounding standing ovation and absolute recognition, apart from the President at Zanu Pf’s annual conference in December is most likely to be the first lady. Thus cementing her legitimacy within the Zanu Pf national membership and by default availing herself as a successor to her husband.
The other dimension to the succession dilemma is a structural one. And its twofold. The first is in relation to the presidency of the country which in terms of the constitution essentially places either of the two vice presidents in line to succeed the incumbent should he resign or become incapacitated. In the event of this occurring it is the vice president who was last acting president that assumes the office of president. At least for 90 days until the ruling party writes a letter to the speaker of parliament confirming him as president for the remainder of the incumbents term of office. This is what positions any of the two vice presidents to succeed president Mugabe. At least at law and as long as they hold their current positions.
The other element to succession which is again legalistic is that of the Zanu Pf constitution. After the ruling party’s elective congress in December 2014, the constitution was amended to give the president and first secretary of the party the power to appoint his two deputies. Whereas previously, these two positions had been by way of provincial nomination, the key change is that they now cannot claim any form of electoral/popular legitimacy via their party structures. They serve quite literally at the pleasure of the principal who appointed them. In the event that the principal is unhappy with them, he can dismiss them at whim and appoint new persons to the positions.
This essentially means that the two vice presidents cannot individually or publicly claim to be in line to succeed the president without his express permission. Hence the general caution and demonstrations of loyalty by both Mnangagwa and Mphoko.
In an odd way, and because of structural similarities (politiburos, central committees, congresses) and historical linkages, the current succession scenario is reminiscent of that which occurred when Stalin took over the Russian communist party after Lenin. Or when Huo Gonfeng became a compromise leader after Mao Tse Tung in China.
In both cases the wives of the former leaders played some sort of role. In the then Soviet Union it has been written that Nadezhda Kruspkaya, Lenin’s wife had an understanding with Stalin and dismissed Trotsky as a potential successor. In China, Jiang Qing was part of what was referred to as the ‘Gang of Four’ that sought to influence who would succeed her husband, Mao.
In Zimbabwe’s case, the first lady is therefore now a key determinant on succession if not a potential successor herself. She has done so by occupying political space within the ruling party. First by becoming secretary for women's affairs, secondly by seeking out a popular appeal and mandate via her rallies and therefore becoming a political authority in her own right.
Unless any other potential successor (including the two vice presidents) can maneuver around their central committee, politburo and congress as did Stalin in the then Soviet Union or Deng Xiaoping in China, they would be advised to prepare for a Grace Mugabe leadership of Zanu Pf and by dint of the same until the 2018 general election, an increasingly possible Grace Mugabe presidency of the country.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)