Zimbabwe's main opposition party, banned last week from holding political meetings in its strongest base, is in a struggle to survive. The Zimbabwe African People's Union, headed by independence war hero Joshua Nkomo, over the past week has been the target of widespread and sometimes violent demontrations. Protestors burned down two ZAPU party offices and are demanding that ZAPU be banned and Nkomo arrested. So far the government has banned ZAPU party meetings in the Midlands and Mashonaland provinces. In Matabeleland, political activities have been are restricted.
The demonstrations and government actions follow the murder of a prominent supporter of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, which has blamed Nkomo's followers for several murders of ZAPU-PF party officials in recent months and for brutality against villagers in the western Matabeleland region.
But behind these latest incidents is a longstanding history of mistrust between the two parties - a clash that many analysts think ZAPU is bound to win.
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government believes the Matabeleland dissidents seek to overthrow the ZANU-PF administration, which won 57 percent of the seats at the country's independence elections in February 1980. There are claims that the dissidents are using a ''hit list'' of ZANU-PF officials to disrupt government preparations for a general election due to be held early next year.
In a tough speech last month, Prime Minister Mugabe warned that his government would ''mount a manhunt'' against the rebels, adding, ''We are going to see this thing to the bitter end.''
Nkomo has repeatedly disclaimed responsibility for the 150 to 200 dissidents operating against the government, mainly in Nkomo's home base of Matabeleland.
What makes this political situation particularly serious for ZAPU is that its organization is being eroded only months before campaigning is to start for the 1985 election, The election should be held by the end of February next year.
There have been many reports in the media here of mass desertions from both Nkomo's ZAPU and Bishop Abel Muzorewa's United African National Council. Bishop Muzorewa himself has been in detention since October last year and to date, no charges have been laid against him in the courts.
Nkomo won 20 percent of the seats in the 1980 elections - mainly in Matabeleland and in Midlands. It seems likely that his party will lose some support, certainly in the Midlands, at the polls next year and that the ruling ZANU-PF will increase its majority, analysts say.
Mugabe is expected to obtain a clear mandate from his party congress early in August to campaign on a platform for a one-party state. This could make the party congress, only the second in the party's history, a more important event than the election itself.
The ZANU-PF congress will be crucial in influencing the direction that the party takes in the next five years. Western diplomats, business leaders, and the shrinking white popuulation - now down to about half its peak level of 275,000 10 years ago - hope that moderate party pragmatists will carry the day.
Political analysts believe the congress will urge the government to speed up on the road to socialism.
Whatever the outcome on these fronts, the likelihood is that the pressures against Nkomo's ZAPU and the other tiny and largely unrepresented minority parties will build up both before and after congress. Analysts here think there is little doubt that Mugabe will win a sweeping mandate in February for the one-party state and then the focus of attention will shift to how and when this changeover, will take place. The outlook for Mugabe is bleak.