South Africa's ruling ANC party, which has dominated the country's politics since the end of apartheid, has begun its search for a new leader to succeed President Jacob Zuma.
Dwindling popular support, corruption scandals and rampant in-fighting mean that the contest looks set to be a bitter battle exposing divisions at the heart of the party.
The contenders will face each other at the African National Congress' (ANC) 54th national elective conference in December when Zuma is expected to stand down as party chief.
The likely frontrunners are outgoing African Union chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is Zuma's former wife, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The victor will then be the party's candidate for president in 2019's general election.
The ANC's powerful women's league opened the campaign for the party's top job when earlier this month it called for a female leader -- a clear endorsement of Dlamini-Zuma.
Dlamini-Zuma, who has four children with President Zuma, is the head of the African Union Commission.
She is not seeking a second mandate for the role, fuelling speculation that she hopes to succeed her ex-husband at the ANC's helm -- though she has yet to declare her candidacy.
The succession battle is seen as crucial for Zuma's future because if a political adversary is chosen it could mean that he is forced to step aside before the end of his term, according to political analyst Ralph Mathekga.
Zuma is also facing a slew of corruption allegations and it will largely fall to his successor as president -- which is likely to be whoever is chosen as ANC party leader -- to determine the vigour with which he is pursued once out of office.
"He is trying to have his wife run for ANC president, first of all as she is highly unlikely to go after him on some of the corruption charges," said Mathekga.
Zuma appeared to throw his weight behind 67-year-old Dlamini-Zuma -- who has held a string of ministerial posts including the foreign and home affairs portfolios -- earlier this month when he told public radio that the ANC "is ready" to elect a woman as its leader.
But independent analyst Daniel Silke warned that "getting a stamp of approval by Jacob Zuma" may not "offer Mrs Zuma a great advantage".
'Unlikely to go after him'
"She remains a mystery candidate when it comes to her vision for a future South Africa," he added.
Cyril Ramaphosa, 64, is also expected to run for the party's top job.
A former trade unionist who helped negotiate the end of white-minority rule in 1994 and then became a wealthy businessman, Ramaphosa told Power FM radio last month that he is "available to stand", though he stopped short of a formal declaration.
Analysts say he may face an uphill struggle after Zuma pointedly said that the vice president should not automatically become party leader.
"Ramaphosa is fighting almost as an outsider in the sense that he doesn't have so much support from the leagues, and that is the support that usually guarantees victory," said Mathekga, referring to influential branches of the ANC.
The contest has already exposed fault lines between Zuma loyalists who back Dlamini-Zuma and reformers who favour Ramaphosa.
In an effort to heal the party, the ANC could even turn to compromise candidates like Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as interim president for several months before Zuma came to power in 2009.
Party treasurer Zweli Mkhize could be another genuine contender, or an eventual "kingmaker" in the event of a stalemate between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, said Silke, as could parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete.
Whoever is chosen as party leader will have just 18 months to restore the ANC's voter appeal ahead of national elections in 2019 following the party's worst-ever electoral performance during August's local polls.
As well as taking a relative drubbing at the ballot box -- the ANC still secured 53 percent of the vote -- Zuma will also leave behind a slowing economy, the highest unemployment rate for 13 years and regular violent protests.
"The task of Zuma's successor is going to be to lead a turnaround process," politics lecturer Ongama Mtimka told AFP.
"They will inherit weakened institutions which have been entrenched in fighting factional battles, mediocrity in key departments, and a culture of corruption."
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