Mugabe Will Face First Major Challenge in March Election

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- A senior member of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party, Simba Makoni, said Tuesday that he would run for president in the March 29 election in the first major internal challenge to Robert Mugabe in 20 years.

Makoni said he had decided to run after consultations with party members and activists across Zimbabwe. Despite economic turmoil, Mugabe, 83, had been expected to win the election against a weak and divided opposition.

Makoni will run as an independent because, according to ZANU-PF rules, he will be automatically expelled from the party.

"This is a major political development in that it confirms the fractures within ZANU-PF and that it will enter this election divided," said political commentator Eldred Masunungure.

The former finance minister said he and an "overwhelming majority" of ZANU-PF members were disappointed that a congress in December had failed to change the party's leadership.

"I have accepted the call and hereby advise the people of Zimbabwe that I offer myself as a candidate for the office of president of Zimbabwe in the forthcoming elections," Makoni, who turns 58 on March 26, told a news conference.

Speculation has been rife that some party stalwarts might launch a breakaway party to field a candidate at the election.

Makoni said he was backed by several ZANU-PF officials, whose names would be revealed in the next week when he launched his election manifesto.

Zimbabwe's private press has reported Makoni was backed by a faction led by retired army general and ZANU-PF politburo member Solomon Mujuru, husband of Vice President Joyce Mujuru.