When an upstart opposition party seized nearly half of the parliamentary seats up for grabs in June's elections, President Robert Mugabe received quite a wake-up call. And the rest of Zimbabwe - regardless of politics - held its breath, hoping four months of violence would come to a halt.
Diplomats entreated Mr. Mugabe to tone down his vitriol and stem support of the mass invasions of white-owned farms by black war veterans, which have killed at least 45 people this year. Otherwise, the experts cautioned, an economic and social catastrophe would be inevitable.
But only six weeks after his ZANU-PF party barely edged out the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe seems ready to revert to old tactics. On Sunday, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Association reported that his government has concrete plans to redistribute 3,000 of the country's 4,000 white-owned farms by the end of the year. At least 1,600 farms are currently occupied.
If this is, in fact, the government's new strategy, it would be inconsistent with the relative flexibility and openness to reform Mugabe demonstrated in the month after elections. In fact, he appointed a new technocratic cabinet that swept out all of the ministers who have held power since independence in 1980. But with the opening of the new Parliament two weeks ago, political confrontation escalated in the capital while intimidation and conflict intensified between Zimbabwe's angry war veterans and white commercial farmers.
One flash point has been the Army. Troops, deployed shortly after the election, have violently attacked opposition victory parties and broken up even modest gatherings of people in shopping areas and taverns in the densely populated urban slums that gave the MDC: its strongest support.
"There have been confirmed reports of soldiers and police beating up civilians. Those ... appear to be vigilante groups or unauthorized groups within the military," says Tony Reeler, head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum. He says army deployment in the townships has been reduced in recent weeks, and police claim to be prosecuting unruly soldiers, but tension continues.
Thousands of MDC supporters and the ruling ZANU-PF crowded the streets July 18, exchanging insults as the new parliamentarians were sworn in. Mugabe was roundly heckled, and when ZANU-PF elected a new speaker of Parliament, ruling party MPs (members of Parliament) began singing in Shona: "Zimbabwe's independence was won in blood." To this, MDC members responded with a deafening: "ZANU is now rotten."
Mugabe angrily replied that he would not hesitate to use the apparatus of state security in response to insults to the state and national leaders.
Some of the tension is natural for a nation that has never had a meaningful opposition and has no tradition of civil political debate. "ZANU-PF - they have to go through some culture shock," MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said after ZANU MPs expressed dismay over that first, confrontational sitting of Parliament.
But more bitter confrontation is brewing. Mr. Tsvangirai intends to use Parliament and the courts to keep Mugabe on the defensive until 2002 presidential elections. Western diplomats say conciliation from Tsvangirai might allow Mugabe a face-saving way to make the otherwise embarrassing policy reversals needed to rescue the crumbling economy. Most critical is a withdrawal of 11,000 Zimbabwe troops from the war in Congo, which is draining away the nation's resources, contributing to a budget deficit that economist John Robertson estimates will exceed 20 percent of the gross domestic product this year.
Tsvangirai vows to attack rather than cooperate with Mugabe. "At every stage we will exploit opportunities" to challenge the ruling party over tenders, procedures and governance.
The country desperately needs foreign aid, but World Bank officials say they agree with Tsvangirai that Mugabe's economic recovery plan is unacceptable.
For his part, Tsvangirai says his mission is to embarrass the government into greater transparency and accountability. "If we can make the government accountable, we will have made a very significant impact," he says.
Tsvangirai says he has received some conciliatory back-channel communications from the ruling party through black business, but he was unsure whether they represented the views of Mugabe or merely concerned businesses.
"It may be because their businesses are suffering and they know they can't get going unless we compromise," Tsvangirai says.
Adding to the pressure on Mugabe, Tsvangirai plans to challenge in court the election results in up to 35 parliamentary constituencies on grounds of election fraud and widespread political violence. Mugabe appoints 30 seats in the 150-member Parliament, which means the MDC must pick up 19 more seats to gain control. With a mountain of evidence, the party stands a good chance in at least a dozen close races and could easily pick up the 19.
Outside the capital, the battle over land is shifting and getting more volatile. On at least 70 farms last week, farmers have been told to leave immediately or be killed. "The violence outside [cities] is continuing in quite a large way," human rights observer Mr. Reeler notes.
In some cases, workers have snapped after months of intimidation and attacked war veterans. White farmers have made an unofficial pact to refuse all requests for food, fuel and transport from veterans. And several hundred farmers have, for the first time, fought back by refusing to pay taxes and stopping operations until order is restored.
In the meantime, the Commercial Farmers Union has scheduled an antigovernment strike to begin tomorrow. A government spokesman said Sunday that the land seizures were "irreversible" and that the government would take what it deems necessary action if the strike occurs.
*Material from the AP was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society