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Mugabe Approves Discussion of Successor - 2003-05-23

For the first time, Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe has authorized discussion on who might succeed him. Mr. Mugabe has encouraged ruling Zanu PF party supporters to choose his successor carefully.

Mr. Mugabe has now given his formal approval for debate about who will succeed him as leader of Zanu PF.

Symbolically he chose a rural area to make his statement, where support for his party is strong. Mount Darwin, about 100 kilometers north of Harare has always been the heartland of Zanu PF, going back to the days of the independence war.

Mr. Mugabe said he is aware that some party leaders are engaged in secret jockeying for the top job. He said some have even consulted traditional healers, to help their ambitions.

He also said he knows several cabinet ministers are engaged in illegal business activities and that several have seized more than one formerly white-owned farm.

Mr. Mugabe's statement to several thousand enthusiastic supporters has now opened the way for the leaders in Zanu PF to openly campaign to succeed him. The president will be 80 years old next year, and he has led Zimbabwe for 23 years.

Sources close to the party say up to now much lobbying has taken place behind closed doors, and factions within the ruling party are engaged in fierce competition.

The question of President Mugabe's successor hangs over any prospects of a solution to Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.

Political observers say that until a successor emerges who is popular both with the masses and Mr. Mugabe, it will be difficult for negotiations with the opposition to begin. The opposition is suing to overturn Mr. Mugabe's re-election last year, saying the election was fraudulent.

Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980. Until a year ago, the question of his retirement could not be discussed in front of him, even in the ruling party's supreme body, the politburo.

Mr. Mugabe is presiding over the world's fastest shrinking economy, according to economist John Robertson. Mr. Robertson says Zimbabwe's economy had shrunk by more than 30 percent in the last three years.