There was all-round agreement yesterday that the much-anticipated 2018 presidential election would be another titanic contest between popular opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe - or a nominee of the increasingly frail nonagenarian.
Zanu-PF insiders and political analysts who spoke to the Daily News said with former Vice President Joice Mujuru's political fortunes taking a severe battering last week - as her fledgling Zimbabwe People First (ZPF) party implodes - there was no one else other than Tsvangirai and his MDC who had "a realistic chance" of taking on Mugabe and Zanu-PF in 2018.
"We are not moved by the many Mickey Mouse opponents within the opposition ranks who are muddying the waters, we know and are firmly focussed on crushing Tsvangirai and MDC again as the next elections approach," a ruling party bigwig said.
On their part, political analysts said the ructions currently ravaging ZPF meant that Mujuru's chances of contesting against Mugabe in 2018 had now taken a "serious dent".
Among other senior Zanu-PF officials who appear to share the view is vocal Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo, who tweeted at the weekend that: "A grand coalition in Zim is by definition untenable because there are many opposition individuals but only one real opposition party, MDC-T!".
Writing on his blog on Saturday, UK-based academic and former adviser to Tsvangirai during the era of the government of national unity, Alex Magaisa, also suggested that Tsvangirai and the MDC remained the biggest challenges to Mugabe and Zanu-PF's quests to remain in power.
"Although it has been a lean period (the past few years), the MDC-T remains Zanu-PF's most formidable opponent. This is why, even though the party has boycotted by-elections since 2013, Zanu-PF campaigners always chant "Pasi neMDC-T / Pasi naTsvangirai!" (Down with MDC-T/Down with Tsvangirai!) - Zanu-PF's notorious ritual of banishing the opposition.
"They do so even when they are competing with other opposition parties. Mentally, their most important rival is still the MDC-T and Tsvangirai. State media propaganda continues to focus on the MDC-T and Tsvangirai as the primary targets," he said.
All this comes as Mujuru and ZPF's founding fathers, Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo, are escalating their feud, which saw hordes of party bigwigs deserting the troubled political outfit last week.
On the other hand, Mugabe and Zanu-PF are battling to keep their former liberation movement's ugly tribal, factional and succession wars in check, as the nonagenarian's impatient lieutenants stampede to try and take over from him.
Professor of politics at the University of Zimbabwe, Eldred Masunungure, was among the analysts who said yesterday that Mujuru's troubles had dealt her "a body blow" in her quest to lead the mooted grand opposition alliance and take Mugabe head-on in the 2018 presidential election.
"With recent developments in Mujuru's party, it's now obvious that the favourite candidate to lead the coalition is MDC leader Tsvangirai.
"Tsvangirai is now the best candidate left ... the chances are now thinner for Mujuru to lead the coalition with what has happened in her party. She is not a strong leader," the respected Masunungure told the Daily News.
In a stunning development that shook both the opposition movement and ordinary Zimbabweans alike, Mujuru "expelled" ZPF's founding fathers Gumbo and Mutasa, together with five other party heavyweights last week - on account of them being alleged Zanu-PF agents and working to topple her from her interim position.
But no sooner had she completed her briefing than the situation turned into a complete farce, when Mutasa and Gumbo announced at their own press conference that they had also summarily "expelled" Mujuru from ZPF.
Mutasa and Gumbo have since seemingly taken control of the party's affairs, after they claimed that they were the rightful owners of the fledgling opposition party and its image rights.
"Mujuru is not known for having done something extraordinary that would give her the ideal qualities of a leader. The squabbles in her party show that she cannot manage a crisis.
"She could have implemented lots of options, including assuring the party elders of a controlling stake in the party and electing a council of advisers such that decisions were arrived at after well thought-out deliberations," another analyst, Shakespear Hamauswa, said.
"Again she could have appointed a committee to look into the differences they were having. If entering a coalition was the main cause for the split, then Mujuru could have done something much better. I think she lacks strategy unless behind the scenes some other things are taking place.
"Morgan managed to build his party in 2005 when it seemed impossible because the secretary general had gone with the national chair, who later came back, as well as the spokesperson, the treasurer, the deputy president and other top key figures.
"But he managed to rebuild the party into a formidable force which caused a coalition government in 2008. So, I think the best person to lead is Morgan Tsvangirai," Hamauswa added.
Another political analyst, Maxwell Saungweme, also said Tsvangirai remained "the only suitable leader" to lead the planned opposition coalition.
"He is the only opposition leader with the biggest support base. There is no debate about that. He does have his weaknesses and vices, but he is the only opposition leader with some modicum of credibility to lead any coalition.
"Mujuru must put her house in order first. Let her finish forming and solidifying her party before tasking her with the responsibility to lead an opposition coalition," he said.
But despite ZPF's unfolding chaos, Mujuru has been working behind the scenes with Tsvangirai and other smaller opposition parties towards the formation of the planned grand coalition.
Analysts have also consistently said that a united opposition, fighting with one purpose, would bring to an end Mugabe's long rule - especially at this time when the country's economy is dying and the increasingly frail nonagenarian is battling to keep his warring Zanu-PF united.
Recently, Tsvangirai also said Mujuru had proved to be a significant opposition player - and that the two would work together with others to dethrone Mugabe and Zanu-PF from power next year.
Mujuru was expelled from Zanu-PF together with Gumbo and Mutasa in the run-up to the ruling party's sham "elective congress" in December 2014, on untested allegations of plotting to assassinate and topple Mugabe from power.
Meanwhile, analysts also say barring unforeseen circumstances, Mugabe was likely to be the Zanu-PF candidate in 2018, at the very mature age of 94 years.
This is despite the fact that the ruling party's two major factions - Team Lacoste which is rallying behind Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the Generation 40 group which is rabidly opposed to the VP succeeding Mugabe - have been going hammer and tongs at each other in recent months over its succession riddle.
Mugabe - the only leader Zimbabweans have known since the country gained its independence from Britain in April 1980 - has managed to keep them at bay, refusing to name a successor and arguing that Zanu-PF should rather follow what he sees as a more democratic process; to manage his succession via a congress.
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