Harare: Southern African leaders meet on Saturday to lay out a plan to guide Zimbabwe toward elections, which could settle a debate that has provoked unusually public divisions within President Robert Mugabe`s party.
Mugabe, 87, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, but inconclusive elections three years ago forced him into a unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai, his main rival, who is now Prime Minister.
Their shaky alliance was meant as a transitional government to oversee the drafting of a more democratic Constitution, which would pave the way toward new elections and avoid a repeat of the bloodshed that marred the 2008 vote.
The process is running a year late, prompting a faction within Mugabe`s ZANU-PF party to push for quick elections this year, even though the Southern African Development Community (SADC) insists on a new constitution first.
The summit on Saturday is expected to reinforce the SADC`s decision by setting a new timetable for completing the charter.
But Mugabe bristles at any outside pressure, and the SADC`s verdict may not sway hardliners within his party, especially military leaders who have publicly called for quicker elections.
"It appears the majority opinion in ZANU-PF is against elections in 2011," said Eldred Masunungure, an analyst from the University of Zimbabwe.
"With those who want elections, we are talking of a minority of a minority, but it appears that minority is a powerful one."
"We heard it from the horse`s mouth when one of the generals said elections should be held this year. The military has the muscle and may be tempted to rail through their preference," he said.
Part of the urgency comes from mounting concern in his party over Mugabe`s age and health, said Takavafira Zhou, political scientist at Masvingo State University.
"The rallying point in ZANU-PF is Mugabe, who is old, and there is a fear that if the elections are delayed and he dies or for some reason the elections are held without him, ZANU-PF is gone," said Zhou.
"There is a small group in ZANU-PF who want elections while they still have Mugabe as the unifying figure. They know that ZANU-PF is Mugabe, and Mugabe is ZANU-PF and that without him they are doomed."
South African mediators last month publicly raised concerns about Mugabe`s health and the succession debate, following reports that he had had surgery for prostate cancer in Singapore early this year.
Mugabe has denied the reports, and no one within the party is willing to publicly consider a future without Mugabe.
"Has anyone changed his or her father just because he is old? Until your father dies, only then can you have a stepfather -- that is that," Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, a top army official with close links to ZANU-PF, said recently.
But two top Mugabe allies, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and central bank governor Gideon Gono, have both cast doubt on the wisdom of quick polls.
Election officials say the wildly outdated voters roll -- an estimated one third of the people on it are dead -- will never be ready this year. The finance ministry says it has no money for elections.
Tsvangirai wants the SADC to support elections no earlier than 2012. His Movement for Democratic Change is also warning against a new class of "securocrats" -- soldiers in politics.
"We expect SADC to look at security sector reforms to remove bias, partisanship and lack of professionalism from our security forces," party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said.
"If these issues are not addressed the `securocrats` will pose grave insecurity to the people of Zimbabwe."