Joice Mujuru, Zimbabwe's Vice-President, has seized pole position in the race to succeed the ageing Robert Mugabe after her Zanu-PF faction emerged victorious from weekend provincial elections, securing her almost unassailable support as leader-in-waiting.

In a blow to her rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the feared Justice Minister, Mujuru's supporters won elections as chairmen in most of the country's provinces. The result means she will be unchallenged as senior Vice-President at Zanu-PF's elective congress next December - and, therefore, as heir apparent to the 89-year-old President should he die or retire before the 2018 elections.

The 58-year-old Mujuru would then also lead Zanu-PF into those elections, smothering the presidential aspirations of Mnangagwa, the former Defence Minister known as "The Crocodile" for his role in the massacre of thousands of political opponents during the 1980s and the violence of the disputed 2008 election.

"Joice Mujuru has won overwhelming support from the provinces, even though this is not said in public by Zanu-PF. She will be the transition, when Mugabe goes, hopefully to a better Zimbabwe," said a Zanu-PF insider.

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For decades all senior party leaders, including vice-presidents, routinely denied they had presidential ambitions.

Any who did so felt Mugabe's wrath. But Mujuru broke that code of silence when she told the Daily Telegraph: "If the chance comes, then no one will refuse."

Many inside Zimbabwe and in the region will be celebrating the success of Mujuru's supporters. She is seen as more democratic and compassionate than Mnangagwa. She became junior vice-president of Zanu-PF in 2004, helped by her powerful husband, General Solomon Mujuru, a popular former army chief who died in a mysterious fire at his farm two years ago.

He was one of only a handful of politicians who stood up to Mugabe and wanted him to step down before the 2008 election. Many believe that he was killed to prevent him helping his wife's political advancement.