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Johannesburg, South Africa (AP) — A power battle is raging in South Africa, pitting President Thabo Mbeki, who spearheaded an economic boom but alienated many of the poor, against former deputy Jacob Zuma, whose reputation has survived rape and corruption charges.
The winner of the fight over leadership of the governing party could determine the country's next president.
Mbeki is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term as South Africa's president, but it's clear he wants a say in who succeeds him when he leaves office in 2009. It's equally clear he does not want it to be Zuma, a one-time protege he fired as deputy president.
Entwined with the Mbeki-Zuma rivalry are a series of national scandals that appear to have hurt Mbeki as much as Zuma.
The battleground is the 52nd national convention of the governing African National Congress, where delegates will choose a party leader Dec. 16-20. The winner will have a big say in picking its presidential candidate, if not taking that role himself, and the ANC has such overwhelming support it is assured of winning the election.
Over the weekend, the party's provincial and internal organizations made their nominations for party president, with Zuma winning endorsement from five of nine provinces, the Youth League and Women's League.
The four provinces that Mbeki won were all close votes. In his stronghold in Eastern Cape province, he won 520 votes to 322 for Zuma. Total votes were 4,535 for Zuma and 2,815 for Mbeki.
In an interview with South African radio Tuesday, Mbeki made it plain he would not drop out of the race. "If there are members of the ANC who nominate me for whatever position ... president, I've got to respect that," he said.
Tokyo Sexwale, a 54-year-old tycoon who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela during white rule and who retired from politics in 1998, had been raised as a possible compromise candidate. But compromise looks an increasingly slim possibility after the weekend nominations, even though more names could be thrown into the race during the convention.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Sexwale said Zuma looks like the winner. "When you look at the numbers ... Jacob Zuma is likely to win this presidency," he said on SAfm radio.
Sexwale denied media reports that he was offering to fund Zuma's campaign.
"Because this has been such a bitter and dirty campaign — a smear campaign with dirty tricks the order of the day — it has left people very, very divided," said William Gumede, author of "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC".
Gumede lamented a missed opportunity for the party that led South Africa out of apartheid to "make this necessary change from one generation of leadership to the younger generation in order that the movement or government does not ossify."
South Africa needs "a new kind of dynamism" to deal with its many socio-economic problems, he said.
Mbeki, 65, has alienated rank-and-file party members with a leadership style seen as aloof and exclusive and by following economic policies seen as favoring big business and failing to improve life for the poor. An introspective intellectual, he argues that a vibrant, capitalist economy will create jobs and wealth that trickles down.
By contrast, the populist Zuma, also 65, is a flamboyant, charismatic former freedom fighter whose signature song, notoriously, has become "Bring me my machine gun." He is backed by two partners in the ANC's tripartite union — the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
The leftist politician has spent the last couple of weeks meeting with business leaders, trying to allay their fears he would derail economic policies that have set South Africa on a trajectory to join emerging market nations like South Korea.
Two years ago, Mbeki fired Zuma after his deputy was implicated in a corruption scandal.
Zuma was subsequently charged and then cleared of rape.
The corruption charges were withdrawn for lack of evidence, but are expected to be revived after a judge opened the way for investigators to seek more evidence.
Prosecutors allege Zuma was aware of efforts by his financial adviser, convicted in a separate corruption trial last year, to secure him yearly payments of $70,000 from a French arms company to deflect investigations into a multibillion-dollar arms deal.
Opposition politicians accuse Mbeki of covering up the arms scandal, which is said to involve Cabinet ministers and other top ANC officials.
"Zuma has stated that if he goes down, he will take the ANC with him, and read for that Thabo Mbeki," said Andrew Feinstein, who resigned as an ANC legislator in protest when his efforts to investigate the arms deal were blocked.
Zuma might fear being charged with corruption before the convention.
But that could work in his favor among those who already believe he has been unfairly targeted and that Mbeki is misusing his power to undermine a rival, said Ebrahim Fakir, a researcher at South Africa's independent Center for Policy Studies.
Analysts feel the trends in the party are going in Zuma's favor.
"There's going to be fierce lobbying ... that still could tip the balance in Mbeki's favor, but I don't think it's likely," said Aubrey Matshiqi of the Center for Policy Studies.