Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu PF party begins an important congress Wednesday when thousands of party faithful from all over the country gather to review progress over the last year and plan for general elections in March.  This year's congress is likely to see the election of Zanu PF's first female vice-president.

One of the key issues at the five-day conference will be the endorsement of Joyce Mujuru as vice-president.  Provincial party structures elected her to replace Simon Muzenda, who died last year.

Her appointment has caused controversy in the state-controlled press, which says her victory has caused divisions in the party.

President Robert Mugabe, who is first secretary and president of Zanu PF, has criticized some party leaders for failing to support her victory.

Political scientist from the University of Zimbabwe, John Makumbe believes that there will be few surprises as the top four positions in Zanu PF have already been decided by the provinces and will be rubber-stamped at the congress.

Joyce Mujuru comes from a rural Zanu PF stronghold and was a member of Mr. Mugabe's guerrilla forces during the liberation war that ended with Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. She has held senior government positions since then, and has kept a low profile within Zanu PF.

Brian Kagoro, co-chair of a group called the Crisis Coalition and a leading analysts of Zanu PF, says despite some divisions, Mr. Mugabe is not likely to take drastic action against those who did not want Ms. Mujuru in such a senior post.  He expects that Mr. Mugabe will work to strengthen Zanu PF's unity.

Mr. Kagoro says party the congress will also work on strategy ahead of the parliamentary election in March, and will look ahead to the next presidential poll in 2008.

Mr. Mugabe, who will be 82 in February has indicated he will retire when his present term runs out.