While the controversy over whether Gen Solomon Mujuru’s death in a fire at his home last week was accidental or foul play rages on, Zimbabwe’s political parties are reassessing their strategies now that the Zanu-PF kingmaker has gone.

With President Robert Mugabe (87) nearing the end of his political career, the stage is set for a fierce clash between two Zanu-PF factions, one led by the general’s widow, senior vice-president Joice Mujuru , the other headed by defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

On the face of it, Mujuru is the big loser. Without Gen Mujuru, deputy-commander of the Zanu liberation army during the civil war in the 1970s and the first black head of the Zimbabwe National Army, her faction has lost its brand. He was always the real power in the faction of which she is titular head. Few analysts see her as the effective, decisive leader that her late husband certainly was.

For months now there has been talk of a possible alliance between prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai (59) and the Mujuru faction against Mugabe, with some in Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change fearing their party could be co-opted and swallowed in the same way that Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu was absorbed by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF two years ago.

After the general’s death, this is a much less attractive option for Tsvangirai but a more promising one for the general’s widow. Though as the senior vice- president she is the heir presumptive to the Mugabe throne, especially as the other vice-president, John Nkomo, 20 years older than her and reportedly unwell, is not a player in the succession stakes. Mugabe himself prefers Mnangagwa.

The vastly experienced Mnangagwa (65) has been in government since independence in 1980, holding many senior cabinet portfolios, including defence, finance, justice and state security, as well as serving a spell as speaker of parliament. Those who worked with him in the finance and justice ministries, including senior judges subsequently dismissed by Mugabe, describe him as a competent administrator who listens to his officials.

Joice Mujuru (56) has no such track record as an administrator and owes her prominence in the party more to her late husband’s powerbroker activities than her own ability.

On paper, who succeeds Mugabe could turn out to be largely academic because opinion polls, such as they are, suggest an easy win for Tsvangirai, assuming that the elections are even remotely free and fair. Those who support a Tsvangirai-Mujuru ticket — which includes many businesspeople — argue that this would continue the inclusive government of national unity while marginalising extremists within Zanu-PF, such as the Mnangagwa faction and political hotheads like indigenisation minister Saviour Kasukuwere .

Kasukuwere hit the headlines again last week with his threat to cancel the business licences of 13 multinationals which have so far, he says, failed to comply with Zimbabwe’s localisation law requiring foreign-owned firms to dispose of 51% of their shares to black Zimbabweans. Kasukuwere gave the multinationals, including Barclays and Standard Chartered banks, Impala Platinum , Aquarius, Rio Tinto, Nestlé, British American Tobacco , Cargill and Canada’s Caledonia Mining, 14 days to submit their proposals for localisation, which should be completed within five years.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono responded angrily, seeking to reassure depositors who were reported to have withdrawn their money from the two international banks that he was the only person with the authority to withdraw banking licences and that he had no intention of doing so.

Kasukuwere promptly hit back, telling Gono that if he did not want to implement government policy, he should resign or “we kick him out”.

Lurking in the wings is the military. Gen Constantine Chiwenga (55), is often named as a possible starter in the race to succeed Mugabe, though this seems unlikely. More important is which faction the top brass will back when the time comes to choose a new Zanu-PF leader. Only last month a senior military officer told a foreign visitor that however the succession struggle played out within Zanu-PF, the party would remain in government. “No other party would be allowed to win,” he said.

Just how much of this was bluster and bravado is impossible to assess. Like so many leaders in Zimbabwe today from all parties, regardless of whether they are discussing politics, the economy, the country’s mineral wealth or its external debt, there is a disconcerting disconnect with reality. Ministers, officials and soldiers are prone to wild claims, devoid of any realism but resonant of the leadership deficit that is clear in Zimbabwe in 2011.

Mujuru’s death and Mugabe’s impending retirement will leave a vacuum that none of the pretenders to the throne seems competent to fill.