FILE - Zimbabwe's First Lady Grace Mugabe greets supporters at a rally in Lupane about 170 Kilometres north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, July 21, 2017.
FILE - Zimbabwe's First Lady Grace Mugabe greets supporters at a rally in Lupane about 170 Kilometres north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, July 21, 2017.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is already the world’s oldest living head of state. The 93-year-old says he is fit enough to run for re-election next year, and has batted away whispers about who he will choose to follow him when he inevitably succumbs.

But as the increasingly frail leader shuttles back and forth to Singapore for medical treatment, the call for him to name a replacement has grown louder. The most recent -- and loudest -- voice to call for a successor is also the most unexpected: his own wife.

Grace Mugabe, 52, raised the delicate issue at this week’s gathering of the women’s league of the ruling ZANU-PF party, to applause and cheering from the crowd.

“I know president says ‘no no no, I don’t want to impose any candidate,’” she said. “But I’ve always argued with him, that ‘you have the role, you have the right to be part of that process. Because we respect you.’ His word will be final. Mark my words, his word will be final!”

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Gr
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace follow proceedings during a youth rally in Marondera about 100 kilometers east of Harare, June, 2, 2017.

Madame Mrs. President?

Mrs. Mugabe is on the shortlist of Zimbabwean public figures rumored to be trying to succeed him, alongside Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Professor Shadrack Gutto of the University of South Africa says the president’s wife is clearly making a play to be his pick. But, he says, she’s wrong about one thing: President Mugabe’s word is only final as long as he lives.

“She wants the position,” he said. “But I’m saying it will occur, as soon as he goes -- in other words, he passes away -- Grace doesn’t have political power in Zimbabwe, at all. And therefore a lot of struggles will start to take place within.”

Pro-opposition analyst Jacob Mafume said he thinks Mugabe has already handed the reins to his wife. Zimbabwe’s struggling economy has been blamed on President Mugabe’s decisions during his 36 years in power, and the couple have been repeatedly accused of corruption and mismanagement.

Mugabe’s plan? Only he knows

“He actually believes that he is running the country when he is not, that is how bad it is,” he told VOA. “His wife is running the country. The other half of the country is being run by Vice President Mnangagwa. The other half is being run by Grace Mugabe grabbing farms, dams and whatever she wants to do at that particular time. So basically we are on auto-pilot as a country, and it is a shame that we are failing to retire an old man to an old people's home.”

And what does the president think? When asked, his response far from clear.

“Other countries have more than two, why can’t we have three deputies,” he said, his voice soft, slow and halting. “Two, two choices: The one, to revert to our position of two vice presidents and one being a lady but another of adding another position of vice president, we have three vice presidents and one a woman.”

Zimbabwe votes in 2018, with President Mugabe leading the ruling party’s ticket.

Sebastian Mhofu contributed to this report from Harare.