ZIMBABWE'S government, reeling from a prolonged recession, economic restructuring, and severe drought, has responded to mounting public criticism by warning of a new internal security threat and casting suspicion over critics of the regime.
Power cuts, food shortages, rising unemployment, and an inflation rate of about 40 percent have severely dented the popularity of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which won decisively in a general election in 1990.
"Since independence [in 1980], Mugabe's popularity has never been lower," says Jonathan Moyo, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe was prime minister from 1980 to 1987, when he was elected president.
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, had one of the most developed economies in Africa at the time of independence. Today it suffers from a decade of unsuccessful socialist-leaning policies and a political system that is authoritarian in practice.
(The African Governance program at the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta classifies Zimbabwe as a "directed democracy" - in which the power of the ruler, the party, and the regime severely limit challenges by individuals, organizations, the legislature, and the judiciary.) Fall from grace
Mugabe once was admired for his relatively pragmatic approach to economic issues but today is seen by critics as out of touch with the people and increasingly intolerant of criticism and dissent.
In 1990, he abandoned a decade-long crusade to establish a one-party state. In the same year, his government abandoned socialism and embarked on a five-year economic-reform program backed by the World Bank.
But Mugabe has kept a personal distance from the unpopular Economic Structural Adjustment Program, which calls for market-led growth and cuts in government controls and spending at a time when Zimbabwe has had to channel all its resources into drought relief.
The mounting public dissent is reflected in the rapid growth over the past year of an independent press that is challenging Mugabe in a way the state-controlled electronic and print media never have done.
"There is a silent revolution taking place in this country," Professor Moyo says, citing the increasing assertiveness of the independent media as the key pointer to a gradual process of democratization. "The elite have become alienated from government, the middle-class are angry because of the government's economic policies, and the grass roots are hungry."
Moyo and other legal academics critical of Mugabe have been sharply rebuked in the state-controlled daily, the Herald.
The Herald articles followed a stark warning to government critics by National Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi in October. He said that while the peace accord in neighboring Mozambique had reduced an external threat, Zimbabweans should remain on their guard.
"Whereas, in the past, the greatest threat to our security was external, the current threat emanates from some commissioned individuals masquerading as human rights activists, ivory-tower intellectuals, and some foreign mass media correspondents," Sekeramayi said.
"They are dedicated to sowing the seeds of national despondency, [and] racial and ethnic hatred and conflict through sections of the local anti-government press.... Appropriate administrative, political, and security measures will be taken to nip these destabilization maneuvers in the bud."
Mugabe faces presssure from the minority Ndebele, whose long-simmering resentment he has not quelled.
A 1989 unity deal between the two major political rivals - Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwean African People's Union (PF-ZAPU) - sought to end a decade of hostilities between the two movements. ZANU-PF's support comes mostly from the majority Shona tribe, while PF-ZAPU is made up mainly of the minority Ndebele.
Before independence, ZANU and ZAPU were the two major liberation movements and had a marriage of convenience under the Patriotic Front. But after ZANU's landslide victory in the independence elections, the new Shona-dominated government began suppressing the Ndebele.
The 1989 unity deal made Mr. Nkomo a joint vice president and put several leading Ndebeles in the Cabinet. But the deal has had few benefits for this minority.
Ndebele leaders have stepped up their calls for autonomy and self-government in recent months and are expected to mount a campaign early next year to mark the 10th anniversary of a massacre of Ndebeles by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade.
"The unity deal is glaringly superficial," says Makhatini Guduza, a veteran Ndebele community leader and life-long confidant of Nkomo. "This country is run by cunning people who want to protect their tribal domination for future generations." Other disaffected sectors
Despite the fact that no powerful opposition party has emerged in Zimbabwe, there is growing assertiveness also by businessmen, farmers, trade unionists, intellectuals, students, and church leaders disaffected with Mugabe's economic policies and resistance to democratic reforms.
"Although the government has ditched the hankering for a one-party state, they don't seem able to move away from the mind-set," says a Western diplomat here.
The Forum for Democratic Reform, headed by former Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena, has an influential - if elite - following, but its leaders appear uncertain as to whether to form a political party.
Moyo says that with no organized opposition leadership change could be unpredictable and difficult to control. He doubts Zimbabwe will follow the example set by neighboring Zambia, where trade unions led a democratic coalition. Change, he says, is more likely to come through a split in ZANU-PF with legislators breaking rank.
"This is what could spark a new movement and give the opposition life."
But other observers feel it is too early to write-off the Zimbabwean president.
"Mugabe has responded to his government's loss of grass-roots support by undertaking more tours to the provinces, politicizing drought relief, and reducing the size of his Cabinet," says a Western diplomat here. "These changes are more cosmetic than real but it would be far too early to write-off Mugabe's chances in an election which is still three years away.
"There is still time to see the benefits of the austere economic reforms and for the 10-year drought cycle to be reversed."