In February 2009, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party agreed to form a fragile unity government with the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the party of long-time autocrat, President Robert Mugabe.
The two parties’ power-sharing deal, brokered by the Southern African Development Corporation, was meant to head off potential widespread violence following disputed presidential and parliamentary elections in March 2008.
The election, in which Mugabe finished second and Zanu-PF lost control of parliament, led to a violent crackdown, with Mugabe and his supporters essentially suspending the democratic process in order to retain power.
Zimbabweans’ desire for change was fueled by years of disastrous governance resulting in some of the worst conditions found in Africa, outside of an active war zone. "The annual inflation rate is over 165,000 percent, the world’s highest," International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, reported around the time of the 2008 election.
"Unemployment is over 85 percent, poverty over 90 percent, and foreign reserves almost depleted. Over 4 million people are in desperate need of food. HIV/AIDS and malnutrition kill thousands every month."
Astoundingly, things got even worse after the election. Failing water and sanitation systems sparked a cholera outbreak that killed more than 4,000 people in late 2008 and early 2009. Inflation reached 90 sextillion percent and forced Zimbabweans to abandon their national currency in favor of U.S. dollars and South African rands.
A subsequent shortage of dollars sparked rioting by underpaid soldiers. University of Zimbabwe professor John Makumbe called the rioting "the beginning of the end" for Mugabe’s regime.
But the 85-year-old strongman held onto power with the help of his security forces, the majority of whom didn’t riot. And the subsequent political compromise between Zanu-PF and the MDC has helped to at least temporarily mollify Mugabe’s opponents.
Today Zimbabwe is calmer. Cholera is mostly under control, with just a handful of new cases reported this year. The wide adoption of foreign currencies has eased inflation. And political violence, while still a problem, is less severe than it was last year, when MDC members and supporters complained of police brutality.
Still, many Zimbabweans fear that the fragile unity government could fail, resulting in another potentially catastrophic period of violence and hardship. A collapse could usher in an era of even greater repression, some say — or it could open up Zimbabwean government for more-lasting reform.
One source of concern is the MDC’s relative weakness compared to Zanu-PF — something informed observers had anticipated during the December 2008 negotiations resulting in the current joint government. "Mugabe and his Zanu-PF will not accept genuine power sharing," International Crisis Group predicted at the time.
One resident of Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare told World Politics Review that the MDC gives the people hope, but delivers little actual change. The opposition party does not seem organized and lacks real power, added the resident. He, like all Zimbabweans approached for this story, asked that his name not be printed for fear of police reprisal.
Sources in Harare agreed that power-sharing is "marginally better" than solely Zanu-PF rule. Some said the unity government should be a temporary measure pending Mugabe’s death or removal from office. Others expressed fears that any presidential successor might actually be worse than Mugabe, whose efforts to strip white farmers of their lands have wreaked havoc on Zimbabwe’s once-thriving agricultural sector.
The feeling that things could get much worse under a new president feeds into what one Harare resident characterized as a national malaise. "The Zimbabwean population lacks the political will for change," the source said. Other city residents corroborated that view. Most people want Mugabe out, but few are willing to risk fighting for it, sources said, with the fear of reprisal trumping reformist sympathies.
Despite Zimbabweans’ weariness and fear, conditions could favor a fresh round of attempted reform — resulting from sheer desperation, if for no other reason. In the same way that the economic chaos of 2008 and the resulting health crisis led to the MDC-Zanu alliance, any coming crisis might finally topple Mugabe.
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s main industrial city and a traditional home of the country’s opposition groups, is a bellwether for future problems.
A lack of capital and worsening power shortages have idled the city’s factories. Currently, the raw materials that normally would feed production in Bulawayo’s plants are being exported to South Africa instead. Finished goods are then imported back into Zimbabwe. It’s economically unsustainable in a country that has long suffered from stratospheric unemployment.
"Zimbabwe has many problems, but the people are not the problem," one Bulawayo elder told WPR. The country’s main tragedy, he said, is that it has all the basic ingredients for being a safe, stable and productive country, with few of the simmering hostilities of its neighbors. But the ruling classes stand in the way.
The current deadlock could change, for better or worse, if the fragile unity government collapses, and revolution, so recently averted, finally comes to Zimbabwe.
David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor.
Isaac Flanagan contributed reporting to this story from Zimbabwe.