Mugabe extends term to declare himself the 'President-for-life'

Robert Mugabe has effectively appointed himself as President-for-life in Zimbabwe after extending his present term by two years until 2010. The ruling ZANU-PF party will this week endorse a controversial amendment that would maintain the 82-year-old's grip on power and prolong his country's status as an international pariah.

Mr Mugabe has already given his assent for the presidential poll - currently scheduled for March 2008 - to be "harmonised" with the parliamentary elections in 2010. His cabinet, the Politburo, has already agreed, making a necessary resolution at the party's annual conference this weekend a mere formality. The proposal has also been adopted by eight of the ruling party's 10 provincial executives.

The extension will take Mr Mugabe's rule up to 30 years, and put him among the select few of Africa's longest-serving despots - while scotching earlier hopes that he would step down in 2008 in order to concentrate on writing his memoirs. Under the leadership of the former school teacher, Zimbabwe has suffered a precipitous slide in living standards, life expectancy and economic output that has rooted the country at the bottom of global quality-of-life indices.

Local press has reported that some ZANU-PF officials were unhappy with the extension because they wanted a new leader in 2008 in a bid to rebuild bridges with Western donors who have suspended aid.

But analysts believe Mr Mugabe could well go on beyond 2010, particularly if the country's economic woes continue, which they are bound to for the foreseeable future amidst sky-rocketing inflation - currently at 1,098 per cent - and widespread food shortages.

Last week, Didymus Mutasa, the minister for land and land reform, suggested that Mr Mugabe should be given an official lifetime presidency - though this would only serve to confirm what many Zimbabweans believe to be true already.

But it is a sentiment Mr Mugabe himself echoed in a recent interview. "I will retire, of course, someday, but it all depends on the circumstances. I can't retire if my party is going to be in a shambles," Mr Mugabe was quoted as saying in the state-run Herald newspaper.

Officially, the proposed extension is touted as a cost-saving measure, so both presidential and parliamentary polls can run together in 2010. But critics say it gives Mugabe a chance to avoid the voters' wrath in 2008 amidst a collapsing economy.

"He doesn't want to fight an election in 2008 - he doesn't want to put people's anger to the test," the Harare-based political analyst John Robertson said. Government policies, such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for distribution to landless blacks, have been blamed for a 40 per cent contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) since 1998.

Mr Mugabe has denied the charges, blaming the country's woes on Western economic sanctions orchestrated by the former colonial power, Britain. Others say the extension gives Mr Mugabe the chance to wrest control of a succession struggle that threatens to tear ZANU-PF apart.

"This [extension] will also give Mr Mugabe the chance to purge the party of all undesirables. It has nothing to do with saving costs," said Reggie Moyo, spokesman for the government watchdog the National Constitutional Assembly.

ZANU-PF remains bitterly divided following Mr Mugabe's decision in late 2004 to appoint Joyce Mujuru, a relative political lightweight, as vice-president. Political factions aligned to Mrs Mujuru and the rural housing minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have been jostling ever since for Mr Mugabe's blessing.