Harare - President Robert Mugabe's ruling party is likely to split over his bid for re-election in March, but analysts doubt his challengers can unseat the veteran Zimbabwean leader.

Speculation has been rife in the past week that some stalwarts from Mugabe's ZANU-PF movement were plotting a breakaway party to field a candidate to mount the first major internal challenge for 20 years against the president.

The speculation - carried mainly in Zimbabwe's vibrant private media - has suggested that a united front, including some top ZANU-PF officials and former cabinet ministers, were unhappy with Mugabe's policies and were ready to launch a challenge to topple him.

Many Zimbabweans blame Mugabe's policies for running down one of Africa's most promising economies, and leaving the country struggling with shortages of foreign currency, food, fuel, water, electricity and lately banknotes.

Although officials linked to the plot against Mugabe have not been available to comment on the issue, local reports say the breakaway party would be headed by former finance minister Simba Makoni and would enjoy the patronage of an influential retired army general, Solomon Mujuru.

For years, Makoni - who is regarded as a reform-minded technocrat - has been touted as a possible successor to Mugabe. But Makoni's critics say he is a political lightweight with no stamina to fight one of Africa's most combative leaders.

Makoni and Mujuru were unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

But Zimbabwe's official media, while acknowledging the possibility of a split in ZANU-PF, says this poses no threat to the ruling party.

A column in the main Herald newspaper, which many believe is written by Mugabe's spokesperson George Charamba, dismissed the expected split as a British-sponsored "coalition of the bitter" bent on reversing Mugabe's policies, including his seizures of white-owned farms.

INTERNAL CHALLENGE

However, analysts say Mujuru's backing could help swing support for Makoni against the 83-year-old Mugabe.

Mujuru, who leads a faction that has been trying to ease Mugabe out of power, is married to one of Zimbabwe's two vice-presidents, Joice Mujuru, a member of ZANU-PF's top politburo, and was the first head of the Zimbabwean army after independence from Britain in 1980.

But critics and analysts doubt the breakaway party would be able to push out Mugabe, who has used political patronage and heavy policing to stifle challenges to his rule.

"Those guys are cowards. The names we are hearing are of legendary cowards, that is the fact, that they lack courage," Lovemore Madhuku, head of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly, said.

"They will not be able to split the ZANU-PF vote because their support is not ZANU-PF grassroot-driven. So I am simply not giving them a chance because the ZANU-PF grassroot support is still firmly with Mugabe."

In the past Mugabe has accused some of his top officials of plotting his ouster with the help of Britain but has vowed to hang on saying he still enjoys overwhelming support.

In December Mugabe said his party was gunning for a landslide victory in the March presidential and parliamentary polls to silence his critics, including the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which accuses him of rigging previous elections.

"There may be goodwill for the breakaway party, but I don't think they have the capacity and that Mugabe will give them the chance," Eldred Masunungure, a leading political commentator said.