There is much speculation in Zimbabwe about whether and when President Robert Mugabe might retire. The president has said his party should begin to discuss who might be the its next leader.
President Mugabe began the speculation by announcing on the country's 23rd independence anniversary in April that he was ready to consider leaving office someday. Then last week, he encouraged open debate on his successor within the ruling ZANU PF party.
But Mr. Mugabe has not said when he might retire. He is 79 years old, and has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. His Ministry of Information says he will stay in office until the end of his current term in 2008.
But if Mr. Mugabe wants to leave office sooner, the Zimbabwe constitution is very clear on the procedure.
"Under the constitution, if the president steps down, immediately one of the vice presidents must take over as acting president for a maximum of three months," explained Lovemore Madhuku, University of Zimbabwe law lecturer and constitutional expert. "Within that three-month period there must be arrangements for fresh elections to elect a new president. So you must have a new president within 90 days of the president resigning or retiring."
Mr. Madhuku said the only way the ruling party can avoid elections is by changing the constitution. But the party does not have the required two-thirds majority in parliament to do so.
"I think we should stress here that most of the discussions taking place around the succession issue are not taking into account what the constitution of the country says," said Mr. Madhuku. "I think the argument by the current president is that he was legally elected and he has to serve until 2008. And should he decide to step down before 2008 then you must follow the constitution which would require that a new president be elected, not that there be a transitional government."
Mr. Madhuku added that Mr. Mugabe is not likely to leave office and force an early election with the opposition apparently very popular among the people, and severe economic problems and food shortages further eroding support for his party. The opposition and most foreign governments already accuse Mr. Mugabe of winning last year's election only through fraud and intimidation.