ON the campaign trail earlier this month, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe likened his political party, which has ruled uninterrupted for more than a decade, to American boxer Mike Tyson, saying it would have no trouble beating its weak opposition.
He made the analogy -- of a forceful man who batters his opponents into submission and sometimes breaks the law (Mike Tyson recently finished serving three years for rape) -- on the eve of the 15th anniversary of independence from white rule today.
When liberation leader Mugabe took the helm after a long struggle for independence from white rule in 1980, it was seen as a test case for a peaceful transfer of power. So far, Zimbabwe has enjoyed a fair level of prosperity and political stability, and not taken the path of civil war like nearby Angola and Mozambique.
The erstwhile Rhodesia, a former British colony, had one of Africa's most developed economies. Now it is suffering from the effects of inefficient socialist experiments and a political system that is authoritarian despite trappings of democracy.
Parliamentary elections April 8 and 9 strengthened the one-party rule of Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), rather than promoting pluralism, and quashed the opposition.
''The elections actually weakened democracy further,'' says John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. ''Zimbabwe, with such a weak opposition and such a dominant ruling party, has southern Africa's weakest democratic system.'' Zimbabwe's shortfalls are all the more striking considering its neighbor South Africa, which has made great strides in building an open political system with a thriving opposition, and brought to power a multiracial government only a year ago.
Ian Smith, leader of the former white-ruled Rhodesia for 15 years, expressed grudging admiration for his former enemy, South African President Nelson Mandela.
''I was initially fearful of Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress],'' Mr. Smith told the Monitor. ''But it is clear that was an incorrect assessment. Mandela has shown he is a man of great wisdom, maturity, and compassion. He seems to care about all people, not just his supporters. That is the difference between that country and this country.''
Even critics like Smith concede Zimbabwe has a workable infrastructure, great mineral wealth, a thriving tourism industry, a good health-care system, and one of Africa's highest literacy rates (80 percent of the 10.4 million population).
After years of brutal rivalry, the majority Shona and minority Ndebele ethnic groups have calmed down. While many whites left Zimbabwe after independence, some are starting to return. And many of those who stayed largely report racism is not a major problem.
But problems still exist. The political ruling elite tolerates little opposition. Living conditions of most Zimbabweans have declined with market reforms under a four-year-old Economic Structural Adjustment Program overseen by the World Bank International Monetary Fund.
Under ESAP (colloquially known as ''Eternal Suffering of the African People'') the cost of living has soared. Business has declined because of interest rates of over 30 percent, a lack of domestic demand, and government red tape that discourages investment.
Inflation is about 20 percent annually. More than 20,000 people have lost their jobs, swelling the 50 percent official unemployment rate. According to local economists, ESAP has failed to meet its key targets, and is unable to check spending or the public-sector deficit.
The trend is common in southern Africa -- post-colonial rulers guard the power they fought so hard to inherit, with a certain popular legitimacy. Polls in Namibia, Mozambique, and Botswana over the past six months strengthened the hand of the post-independence ruling parties. But the trend now is even more pronounced in Zimbabwe where corruption is rife and the government controls most of the media and harasses critics.
The results of the elections -- ZANU-PF winning nearly all 150 parliamentary seats -- were a foregone conclusion. A boycott by opposition parties automatically gave the government 55 seats.
At a rally outside Harare, Reya Mkona echoed a common reason why she supported ZANU-PF: ''It is the only party I have known since independence.''