HARARE - The surprise nomination of President Robert Mugabe's wife to head the ruling party's powerful women's wing has injected new intrigue into the fight to succeed the 90-year-old strongman.
Confirmation of her position as leader of the ZANU-PF women's league at the party congress in December would propel Grace Mugabe, 49, into the party's powerful politburo.
As a member of the supreme decision-making body the former presidential typist will play an active role in the faction-riven battle to succeed her husband, who took power in 1980 on Zimbabwe's independence from Britain.
Speculation over the thinking behind the elevation of a woman who has previously taken a back seat in the ZANU-PF drama has gripped Zimbabwe since her nomination was announced at the weekend.
Some analysts have expressed concern that a Mugabe dynasty could be in the making.
Rashweat Mukundu, of the political think-tank Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said the move would deepen the mystery over Mugabe's succession.
"It's a continuation of the power struggle within ZANU-PF and will add to the confusion over Mugabe's successor," Mukundu told AFP.
During his 34-year rule Mugabe has studiously avoided naming a successor, yet he has expressed his personal worries over the absence of a suitable successor.
President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend the graduation ceremony of their daughter Bona at a university in Singapore last year
Fears of a dynasty
"The battle ground will shift," said Mukundu. "It's a difficult situation ZANU-PF finds itself in.
"There is so much secrecy around the succession issue and no one knows what the other faction is planning or thinking."
Factions led by Vice President Joyce Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have been jockeying for the veteran ruler's post, dividing the party and raising concern over its future without Mugabe.
Haggling between the two factions cost the party dearly in the 2008 elections when Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the majority of parliamentary seats.
Mugabe loyalists said the move to endorse Grace Mugabe as head of the women's wing was meant to bridge the divisions threatening to tear ZANU-PF apart.
"We see a lot of division," said Monica Mutsvangwa, the ZANU-PF women's league secretary for information and publicity.
"We need to move together and this is what the women's league is saying. She (Grace) is the mother of the nation and she has demonstrated her political expertise."
But political analyst Dumisani Nkomo said Grace Mugabe's elevation could spawn a third force and plunge the party further into disarray.
"The problem is that she might have her own ambition," Nkomo said. "It changes the whole succession matrix. It creates a third force addition to the current confusion.
"It's bad for the country. We could also see the creation of a dynasty and consolidation of power by the first family," he said.
Mugabe has in the past pledged to recommend a successor at an appropriate time to avoid causing splits in the party.
But his wife's move into active politics is likely to set off "what could be intriguing political contests", according to Mabasa Sasa, a columnist of the state-owned Sunday Mail.
Uncertainty over Mugabe's succession and concerns over his age and deteriorating health have divided the government and stalled growth in the ailing economy, with investors adopting a wait and see attitude.
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Mugabe''s wife joins fray over Zimbabwe succession