Former Zimbabwe finance minister and ruling ZANU-PF Secretary for Economic Affairs Simba Makoni announced Thursday that he will challenge President Robert Mugabe and two opposition candidates for the executive office in March elections, ending months of speculation as whether he would break party discipline.
Correspondent Sylvia Manika reported from Harare that Makoni told journalists that he would have preferred to stand as a ZANU-PF candidate but "unfortunately, as we all know, that opportunity was denied (by President Mugabe) to any other cadre who would have offered themselves to serve the party and country."
Speaking with VOA following his shock announcement, Makoni said he still wants to run on a ZANU-PF ticket - but failing that, he'll contest as an independent. He said he will soon release a list of ruling party members throwing their support behind him.
Political analyst and University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe said Makoni’s bid for the presidency amounted to a slap in the face for President Mugabe, and the bid has already injected new excitement into the presidential contest.
Lawyer and political analyst Theressa Mugadza said that if Makoni does not turn out to be a stalking horse for President Mugabe or ZANU-PF, he will reshape the race and give Zimbabweans a wider choice for their next president.
The leaders of both factions of the divided Movement for Democratic Change - MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai and rival Arthur Mutambara - are expected to submit their names as presidential candidates when nomination courts sit on Feb. 15.
Political analyst Joy Mabhenge, who is also the executive director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Makoni is likely to draw off the ZANU-PF vote from Mr. Mugabe.
Mr. Makoni's entry into the race could effectively neutralize Mr. Mugabe's advantage in having two opposition presidential candidates splitting the vote.
Besides serving in Zimbabwean cabinet posts, Makoni at one point was considered a contender for the top post at the African Development Bank.