Botswana's reputation as a beacon of stability in Africa will be tested by a looming leadership battle in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), analysts say.
With the backing of President Festus Mogae, Vice-President Lt-Gen Seretse Ian Khama is to challenge BDP national chairman, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, for the chairmanship of the party at the BDP's bi-annual congress in July.
"If Kedikilwe wins there is a very strong possibility that he will challenge and beat Mogae for the presidency next year," said a political analyst at the Botswana Guardian newspaper, Outsa Mokone. "This is a do-or-die battle for both men. Whoever loses is finished politically."
While acknowledging that contesting top party positions so close to the general elections was potentially destabilising, Mogae recently told the women's wing of the ruling BDP that he believed the chairmanship poll could be carried out in a dignified, transparent and comradely fashion.
"After all, when the contests are over, we remain members of one family," he added.
The BDP has won every national election since independence in 1966. Analysts say the dilemma for Mogae is that under the BDP's constitution, the president of Botswana is not directly elected by the people but by the party, and Kedikilwe is an influential member.
The constitution also allows for the automatic succession of the vice-president to both party and state presidency in the event of a vacancy in the office of the president.
When former president Sir Ketumile Masire retired in 1998, he was succeeded by Mogae, a party outsider, who was then vice-president. Mogae was a latecomer to the BDP's Central Committee, and while he has been praised as an astute technocrat, analysts question the level of support he enjoys among the party's rank and file.
While Khama's popularity has not been tested, he is the son of Botswana's first president, Sir Seretse Khama, and is the paramount chief of Bamangwato, an area covering over half the constituencies to be contested in the 2004 general election.
It is believed by those close to Mogae that if Kedlikilwe, who resigned from Mogae's cabinet shortly after the 1999 general
elections, should lose to Khama at the July congress, Mogae is almost guaranteed to serve his final five year term in office. Under the BDP's constitution, Khama would then smoothly succeed Mogae.
Khama is an elected member of the BDP's Central Committee. But despite the depth of affection still felt for his late father, who ruled from independence until his death in 1980, it is not clear what level of support Khama, a former career army officer, enjoys among party stalwarts.
He was catapulted from the army into the vice-presidency by Mogae in 1999 in a move reportedly aimed at quelling faction fighting within the party. However, grumbles from senior ranks of the BDP have remained among those who considered themselves better qualified for the post.
The current political instability, represented by the chairmanship battle and a potential challenge to Mogae as presidential candidate from within the party next year, has been described as unprecedented.
"Botswana is now becoming democratic for real. For too long the leadership in top positions of the party have not been challenged. They have been placed. Democracy has been applied to the lower ranks of the party only," Pamela Dube, editor of the Mokgosi newspaper told IRIN.