HARARE - Divided as never before over ageing leader Robert Mugabe's succession, Zimbabwe's ruling party opens a key leadership congress Tuesday, with a host of heavyweights sidelined by a major purge.
The elective congress - to be attended by some 12,000 delegates - is expected to endorse the 90-year-old Mugabe as party chief and his wife Grace as women's league boss.
But several major players are unlikely to retain their posts after a purge in recent weeks targeting Vice President Joice Mujuru and her allies.
"This marks a major turning point in the fortunes of ZANU-PF," Ibbo Mandaza, head of the think tank Southern African Political and Economic Series Trust, told AFP.
"We don't even know what ZANU-PF will look like after the congress. It's a different ballgame altogether." The party meets behind closed doors on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the congress moving into open session from Thursday to Saturday.
But with the ruling party set to approve amendments to its constitution to allow Mugabe to personally appoint his deputies, business was already as good as done, said analyst Rushweat Mukundu of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
"Much of the congress business has been completed as Mugabe will have the power to chose who he wants to work with," Mukundu told AFP.
"If there is going to be any competition, it will be among bootlickers fighting to earn the favour of the president." One of the victims of the purge, suspended party spokesman Rugare Gumbo, said the congress was a sham.
"If Mugabe is given the power to appoint then it ceases to be an elective congress," he said.
"The whole congress is a non-event because the constitution has been manipulated and violated. So where is democracy? It is not a congress at all. It is a charade."
Contenders to succeed Mugabe
Long a front-runner to succeed Mugabe, Mujuru's future now hangs in the balance after she failed to make it into the party's central committee.
ZANU-PF rejected Mujuru's election papers last week after Grace Mugabe accused her of corruption and fomenting factionalism within the party.
She has also been accused of plotting to assassinate the president.
Mujuru's only hopes lies in a direct appointment by Mugabe - improbable due to pressure from his wife.
Grace Mugabe, 49, won a surprise nomination in August to lead the powerful women's wing of ZANU-PF in August and has made no secret of her ambition to clinch the country's top job.
ZANU-PF has been riven by factionalism over Mugabe's succession for years, with the veteran ruler avoiding naming a successor.
And although the party has papered over its divisions in the past, the in-fighting cost it dearly in the 2008 elections when it lost its parliamentary majority to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
In the same election, Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential race to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai failed to garner the required majority to be declared the outright winner and later withdrew from the race to avoid political violence.
Mujuru, 59, and powerful Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa were leading contenders to replace Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
With Mujuru out of the race, eyes have turned back to 68-year-old Mnangagwa, an old long favourite to succeed Mugabe.
One of the young guerrillas who helped direct Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war, Mnangagwa was appointed minister of national security at independence in 1980.
He was in charge of state security during an anti-dissident crackdown in the 1980s which claimed an estimated 20,000 lives.
Through the years he has served variously in Mugabe's cabinet including as minister of defence, finance and national housing.