TWO years ago, when Zimbabwe's main political parties began their merger, Africa's youngest nation seemed destined to follow the course of most of its predecessors. As a de facto one-party state, peace, if not democracy, would prevail. Today, as Zimbabweans prepare for the second round of elections since independence in 1980 - expected early next year - the picture is radically different.
Although the union of two parties - the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which draws most of its support from the majority Shona population, and the minority Ndebele-based Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) - has been successful, a fresh opposition party has emerged.
The challenge has, ironically, come from within ZANU, with the formation earlier this year of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) by the maverick politician Edgar Tekere, President Robert Mugabe's right-hand man during the war for independence.
While the party's platform is a somewhat obscure mix of socialism and capitalism, it is the first issue-oriented political party in Zimbabwe - where allegiances tend to follow ethnicity.
``We are making history,'' declares Davison Gomo, ZUM's secretary for finance. ``We could very well be the first African party that will unseat a popularly elected government through the same method.'' That is probably wishful thinking, but ZUM has certainly thrown a wrench in the works of preparation for a one-party state, and has removed the specter of a straightforward, bland election here next year.
Initially, the ruling party had counted on Mr. Tekere's alleged outlandishness and penchant for alcohol, and ZUM's diverse membership (ranging from radical socialists like himself to former members of the white Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe) to ruin the party. Mr. Mugabe called the party the ``joke of the year,'' soon to ``zoom away.''
Three recent rural by-elections, in which ruling party candidates swept to victory, have reassured ZANU that it still holds sway in traditionally conservative rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lives.
But a complicated fourth rural by-election has highlighted the ruling party's nervousness. Initially, the party's candidate was disqualified for registering late. Mugabe overturned the court ruling to get the candidate re-registered. And ZUM now says it will boycott the election.
ZUM has been able to capitalize on concern about the one-party state among Zimbabwe's more educated urban elite. The government's express desire to do away with the multiparty system, seen in a recent spate of crackdowns on demonstrations at the university, is seen by many as an unfortunate sign of intolerance.
``On the political front, ZANU has moved toward isolating, if not completely ignoring public opinion,'' charges ZUM's Gomo. ``This kills the pulse which keeps the nation pushing forward, because everyone is waiting to be told what to do.''
``Even if I don't go for ZUM myself,'' says a Harare voter sympathetic toward the former opposition ZAPU party, ``I think it has been a healthy political development, because it will prevent a one-party state.''
Under the British-brokered Lancaster House independence Constitution, ``freedom of association'' is one of the guarantees made under the Bill of Rights. Until April 1990, it can only be altered by a unanimous vote in parliament. After that, only a two-thirds majority is necessary.
Even if ZUM won a few seats in the elections that Mugabe hints will take place in March, the ruling party could theoretically muster the two-thirds majority needed to alter the Constitution to allow a one-party state.
However, Mugabe has often said that a one-party state should come about naturally, without resorting to legislation. An outpouring of sentiment against a one-party state would be a major deterrent.
ZUM has gained on other issues. A public inquiry into the illegal sale of cars by government officials proved highly popular with the public. It led to five ministers resigning and one committing suicide. Mugabe used his presidential prerogative to let one minister (and effectively all of them) off charges of perjury. Tekere then labeled him a ``defender of the offenders.''
In a manifesto released just before last week's unity congress (cementing the ZANU and ZAPU union), ZUM focused on the controversies around potential one-party rule. According to ZUM, press freedom, a mixed economy, and land reform all require the participation of many groups for the country's progress.
Apart from possible votes in the urban areas, ZUM is also likely to garner support from Tekere's home area of Manicaland, and possibly from the former ZAPU stronghold of Matabeleland, where a few are privately disgruntled with the unity accord.
Independent analysts believe that even with ZUM's seemingly haphazard structure and agenda, the party will win a few seats in the next elections, and will at least cause the ruling party some concern in other constituencies.
The battle, however, is not likely to be a pleasant one. In early October, 11 lower ranking ZUM officials were detained without trial.