Harare, Zimbabwe — Last week's political violence in the tiny Zimbabwe- an town of Plumtree is seen by political analysts here as an example of what could happen on a wide scale in the run-up to next year's elections.
The violence, in which 200 people were injured, followed a political rally addressed by the provincial governor. Members of youth wing of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) set upon villagers whom they accused of supporting opposition leader Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU).
Zimbabweans are due to go to the polls in April in the country's first elections since independence in April 1980. Mugabe's ZANU-PF will be seeking a mandate for the establishment of a one-party state, generally following Marxist-Leninist principles.
With the national press dominated by government-owned newspapers and broadcasting, it is impossible to forecast how citizens might vote. Political commentators and diplomats here are split into two camps on this issue.
Some believe that Prime Minister Mugabe's position is more assured than ever and that he will increase his parliamentary majority beyond that which ZANU-PF received in February 1980. Others say that the ruling party is increasingly unpopular in the urban areas and that this could lead to some electoral surprises. Some think the minority parties may come on stronger than expected.
That there is considerable unrest in towns around the nation is broadly agreed, but political analysts disagree over whether the discontent will manifest itself in large-scale defections from ZANU. Many analysts think the rough tactics of the ZANU youth wing in Plumtree seem designed to convince any waverers that it is wisest to support the government.
At the pre-independence elections in 1980, Mugabe won 71 percent of the vote. His party now holds 58 of the 80 common roll seats. Nineteen seats are held by Mr. Nkomo's ZAPU, which relies for the bulk of its support on the Matabele people in the western half of the country. Twenty seats are reserved for white representatives.
In 1980, some 2.8 million voters went to the polls to elect members of Parliament on a so-called party list proportional representation system. But the 1985 elections are due to be held on a constituency basis, which means the winner will be the first past the post as in the British Westminster system.
Political sources say, however, that it will take at least a year after voter registration is completed to delimit the constituencies. Since voters are still being registered, some think it is likely that the government either will have to return to the party-list system or postpone the vote to give the delimitation commission time to complete its task.
But the Mugabe government seems eager to hold the elections on schedule despite administrative problems - possibly because any delay in going to the polls could benefit the minority parties.
It would be surprising if the ZANU-PF government had not lost some support in the past two years of economic austerity, many analysts say. The likelihood, they assert, is that Prime Minister Mugabe will carry the rural areas in the east, but his support may be eroded in the urban centers.
In the cities, real wages and real incomes have been falling, prices are rising, and employment declining. But in the countryside, where bulk of the people are self-employed and farm prices and weather are key economic determinants, maise and cotton farmers have done relatively well despite the 1983-84 drought. And it is in the rural areas that the government has concentrated its development efforts. There Zimbabweans can see improvements in the form of more schools, clinics, bore holes, and diptanks for cattle.
If ZANU support is eroded, it may take the form of a lower voter turnout rather than active polling for opposition candidates, particularly since Bishop Abel Muzorewa's opposition United African National Council is disorganized, lacks funds, and does seem to be in a position to mount a major political challenge.
In Matabeleland, the likelihood is that Nkomo's support will hold firm despite the recent defection of some key supporters. Indeed, the fact that the government reacted so sharply to Nkomo's call for a united front against ZANU-PF suggests that Mugabe is well aware that his party be vulnerable to a united opposition.