South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Tuesday he was still in the race to lead the ruling African National Congress after his rival Jacob Zuma gathered nominations from key groups and across provinces.
"If there are members of the ANC who nominate me for whatever position ... I have got to respect that," he told South Africa's SABC television.
"When the ANC elections commission comes and says 'you have been nominated for president, are you available?' I will respect that, I will say yes of course I am available," Mbeki said.
Mbeki's comments came after ANC branches in South Africa's nine provinces nominated their choice over the weekend to head the ruling party.
South African media reported Zuma won five of the nine provinces, while Mbeki won four. If Zuma wins the ANC presidency, he is almost assured of becoming South Africa's president in the 2009 elections.
Analysts say Mbeki, who is not allowed to run for re-election as state president at the next polls in 2009, wants to retain his ANC leadership to influence the country's politics and help pick his successor.
A bitter rivalry between Zuma and Mbeki has plunged the party into one of the worst crises in its history, and overshadowed crucial issues such as AIDS, widespread poverty, and one of the world's highest crime rates.
The party goes into a December 16-20 meeting to select a new leader deeply split over Mbeki's policies, which have turned South Africa into an economic powerhouse.
Critics who back Zuma say a majority of the country's black population have not benefited from Mbeki's rule and that his policies have favoured big business.
Political analyst Susan Booysen said the decision by most ANC branches to nominate Zuma for party president may have marked a turning point for the party which led the struggle against apartheid.
"It was also a kind of decision about self renewal. I think ... it was more than just electing Jacob Zuma. It was a decision that said 'We want the ANC to be a bit different from what it has become over the last decade'," she said.
Mbeki, who has been described as a shrewd strategist, may be scrambling to break Zuma's momentum in the hope that senior party delegates will back him in a secret ballot at the last minute, analysts say.
Mbeki said in an interview with SABC the decision by most ANC branches to back Zuma would not weaken the government as he serves out his term as South African president until 2009.
"It certainly wouldn't have any impact ... in terms of the continued pursuit of the policy positions of the ANC," he said.
"I know for a fact that the masses of our people in the country continue to say 'our hope is the ANC' despite all the problems we have whether it's not enough houses and water and jobs and all of this." ( Reuters )