President Thabo Mbeki's bid to cling to power in South Africa is crumbling after his nemesis, Jacob Zuma, roared ahead in early voting by the ruling African National Congress provincial structures ahead of a national conference to choose a new ANC leadership.
Despite a cloud of corruption hanging over him, Mr Zuma won five provincial nominations against Mr Mbeki's four in preliminary voting by ANC members.
Mr Zuma not only won the majority of provinces but did so with huge margins. In those provinces where he lost to Mr Mbeki, Mr Zuma was narrowly defeated. In his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Zuma won 580 votes to Mr Mbeki's nine. In Mr Mbeki's home province of Eastern Cape, Mr Zuma attracted 322 votes against Mr Mbeki's 502.
Analysts say the fact that Mr Zuma, 65, had made such inroads in Mr Mbeki's stronghold proved that the latter was headed for an ignominious exit from power when the ruling party meets for the final election of ANC leaders at its crunch congress in three weeks.
In a further setback for Mr Mbeki, South Africa's influential African National Congress Women's League yesterday nominated Mr Zuma.
The ANC officials who voted in early provincial nominations at the weekend constitute a large majority of the 4,075 delegates who will vote by secret ballot for the party's leadership next month. If their voting is replicated at the conference, then Mr Mbeki, trailing Mr Zuma by about 1,000 votes, is certain to be humiliated. Although Mr Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as head of state in 1999, is not eligible for re-election as president when his second term expires in 2009, he has sought to stay in power as leader of the ANC, whose constitution does not impose time limits.
Critics say Mr Mbeki wants to remain as ANC leader so that he can act as kingmaker and anoint a successor whom he can manipulate, and continue ruling from the sidelines after 2009. Mr Mbeki's designs are nevertheless being strongly resisted by the rank-and-file of the ANC who are opposed to the idea of having two centres of power and want him to step down in favour of a new leader. If he gets his way and remains at the helm of the ANC, some party members fear Mr Mbeki might seek to change the constitution and stay on as president.
But Mr Mbeki looks determined to take the battle to the wire and will not consider withdrawing from the race despite his weekend setback. One strategist, Andile Nkuhlu, said withdrawal from the race was not an option for Mr Mbeki.
"We will work on delegates. We will work on other provinces," he said. But many Zuma backers said they will refuse to be persuaded by Mr Mbeki and his supporters to change course. "This is not about money ... it's a matter of principle. Thabo must set an example and go. We don't need Mugabeism here," said one Zuma backer, a reference to the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, who is clinging to power after 27 years in office.
Although widely credited for South Africa's economic boom, Mr Mbeki has been criticised for his distant style of leadership. The surging economy has not arrested widespread poverty and unemployment. Mr Mbeki also faces criticism over his government's failure to curb crime and the spread of Aids.
On the international stage, prominent South Africans such as the Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu have excoriated Mr Mbeki's government for opposing UN resolutions against repressive regimes such as Burma and Sudan while helping to keep Zimbabwe off the agenda of the Security Council.
One analyst said that while Mr Zuma was not the ideal candidate to lead South Africa, as he could still face corruption charges over an arms deal, many would support him if his candidacy guaranteed getting rid of Mr Mbeki.