JOHANNESBURG | Speculation about the failing health of Zimbabwe's president has dominated local newspapers for weeks, raising questions about who would succeed the 88-year-old dictator.
But Robert Mugabe made no reference about reports on his health Wednesday at a rally marking the 32nd anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence from Britain. Still, he faltered several times during an unusally short speech.
Late last month, local newspapers speculated that Mr. Mugabe, who had been on an extended trip to Asia, was dying at a hospital in Singapore - only to have him fly home and run down the steps of a charter jet, declaring himself "fit as a fiddle."
What would happen if Mr. Mugabe were to die in office has been a key topic in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.
Under the constitution, Vice President Joice Mujuru would assume the leadership for 90 days, after which Parliament - serving as an electoral college - would choose a successor.
Mr. Mugabe's political party - the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which has ruled since the southern African nation won its independence - lacks the majority in Parliament and likely could not secure the succession of its candidate.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which won the majority in the last election, would elect its leader - Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, who currently serves in the largely ceremonial role of prime minister in a power-sharing deal with ZANU-PF.
When Mr. Mugabe and his party lost the 2008 election, he refused to transfer power to Mr. Tsvangirai and the MDC.
Mr. Mugabe gave no clues about his health or would-be succession on Wednesday, but he said that elections will be held this year under a new constitution that is awaiting approval by referendum.
He said all parties "should encourage their supporters to promote the spirit of peace, tranquillity and harmony through social dialogue."
The 2008 vote resulted in more than 200 people being killed, mostly from MDC, while thousands were displaced by violence that observers agreed was largely carried out by ZANU-PF and by soldiers and police who remain loyal to Mr. Mugabe.
Mr. Tsvangirai has said there should be no vote until 2013 in order to allow changes to the constitution that currently gives Mr. Mugabe direct control of security forces and the secret police.
The MDC also wants equal access to the media. Zimbabwe's sole radio and television company is controlled by the state, and daily newspapers were nationalized in 1982.
Since 2009, private newspapers have been allowed to operate, but they frequently are confiscated by soldiers and ZANU-PF's youth militia who man roadblocks between Harare and rural districts.
Protests against Mr. Mugabe's rule are scheduled to take place over the weekend in Johannesburg and London. In Washington, a demonstration will be held outside the South African Embassy on Saturday.
Protest organizer Den Moyo said that only a "truly free and fair election will deliver the country from dictatorship."
Saturday's demonstration at the South African Embassy in Washington is intended to persuade that country's government to put pressure on Harare, he said.
"Zimbabwe is land-locked and most of its fuel, electricity and other imports come through South Africa," Mr. Moyo said. "It is no good talking about succession in a party that has almost no support on the ground and many of whose leaders would end up on trial for crimes against humanity if they lost power."
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