HARARE (AFP) – A victory for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's presidential elections this week would raise the prospect of him ruling well into his 90s, enflaming a succession battle that already quietly rages.
You don't rule a country -- especially one as volatile as Zimbabwe -- for 33 years without knowing a thing or two about seeing off rivals.
Since taking up the reins of a newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe has for three decades deftly brushed aside opponents and, with power consolidated, kept subordinates in their place.
He started with Joshua Nkomo, a man many considered to be the father of the modern nation.
Mugabe's ZANU and Nkomo's ZAPU kicked out the white-minority government after a long bush war. A brief co-habitation followed.
But ultimately it was Nkomo who fled the country, accused -- with the aid of some suspect intelligence operations -- of plotting a coup.
His supporters in Matabeleland were brutally crushed by North Korean trained forces, in a operation that killed around 20,000 people and become known as Gukurahundi -- the early rain that washes away the chaff.
Since then a series of elections saw Mugabe retain power by hook or crook, repeatedly seeing off Morgan Tsvangirai, who he will again face on Wednesday.
Again critics doubt the vote will be free and fair, and few doubt the outcome.
But perhaps the fiercest battle will take place behind the scenes.
Throughout his rule, Mugabe has steadfastly refused to name a successor.
The lack of a clear a clear heir has in recent years spelt jockeying within ZANU-PF between two camps, one led by Vice President Joice Mujuru and the other by hardline Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
After losing the first round of the 2008 elections, there were reports that Mugabe was prepared to accept defeat, but was pushed by allies in the security forces to hang on.
It was the military that reportedly led the violent campaign in the lead up to the run-off election which Tsvangirai boycotted following the killing of some 200 of his supporters.
Wrapping up his election campaign on Sunday, Mugabe showed no sign of changing tack, claiming he would have the energy to run in 2018.
His failure to pick and groom a successor "means he cannot trust anyone in ZANU-PF", according to Shakespeare Hamauswa of the University of Zimbabwe.
As a result, if he is handed back power on Wednesday he likely continue to recycle the stalwarts who have served him for decades and a playbook that has served him throughout his political life.
Born on February 21, 1924, at a Jesuit mission northwest of the capital Harare, Mugabe was described as a studious child. He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.
He took his first steps in politics while studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders.
He taught in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and later in Ghana -- where he was profoundly influenced by the country's founder president Kwame Nkrumah. It was also there where he met his first wife Sally.
As a member of various nationalist parties which were banned by the white-minority government, Mugabe was detained in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
But he used his incarceration to gather three degrees, including a law degree from London, via correspondence.
He also used that time to consolidate his position in the Zimbabwe African National Union and emerged from prison in November 1974 as the party leader.
He skipped the border for Mozambique, from where his banned party staged a guerrilla war against the white minority colonial Rhodesian regime.
Economic sanctions and war forced Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to negotiate.
After that ZANU, which drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, swept to power in the 1980 election.
In 2000 Mugabe launched controversial land reforms, driving thousands of white farmers off their land.
Some of the white farmers were accused of joining forces with his Western foes in a campaign to topple him, using the opposition MDC as a front.
The white farmers were replaced by hundreds of thousands of black farmers including his cronies and army veterans.
The chaotic process plunged the former regional breadbasket into a decade-long crisis, with most rural dwellers relying on food handouts.
Under pressure to end the crushing economic decline, Mugabe entered into an agreement with Tsvangirai to form a unity government.