By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Friday the ruling ZANU-PF should aim to hold free and fair elections always, while his party endorsed him as its leader and official candidate for the top job when the vote comes.
The international community will be closely watching the next elections, due by the end of July, following last month's de facto military coup which ended Robert Mugabe's 37-year reign. There is talk that the vote could be brought forward to as early as March.
Mnangagwa, 75, who was sworn in as president on Nov. 24, was addressing a special congress in downtown Harare which endorsed him as the party's leader and presidential candidate in the elections.
"Democracy bids that as a political party, ZANU-PF must always compete for office through pitting itself against opposition parties in elections which must be credible, free, fair and transparent," he told about 6,000 party members.
Since he assumed power, Mnangagwa has consistently mentioned the credibility of the elections, a sign of the vote's importance in shoring up Zimbabwe's democratic credibility.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said late last month that financial support for the new government to stabilize its currency system and help it clear World Bank and African Development Bank arrears depended on "democratic progress".
In the latter half of Mugabe's rule, the economy collapsed, especially after violent and chaotic seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms.
His successor is under pressure to reverse the economic decline before the 2018 elections and has vowed to focus on rejuvenating the struggling economy and creating jobs. Once seen as one of Africa's most promising economies, Zimbabwe now has an unemployment rate above 80 percent.
Mnangagwa, whose sacking as vice-president set off the chain of events that led to Mugabe's removal, said the ZANU-PF congress should define a new trajectory - which he did not spell out - and put behind it the victimization of members seen in the past.
He may name two deputies at the congress. Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, who was considered an ally of the G40 faction allied to Mugabe's wife Grace, has already been sacked from the party and his post.
Party and government officials have refused to comment on speculation in privately owned newspapers and on social media that Mnangagwa is likely to make military chief General Constantino Chiwenga one of his deputies as a reward for spearheading the de facto coup that ended Mugabe's rule.
(Writing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise; Editing by James Macharia and Hugh Lawson)