The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, now faces the threat of a revived ZANU-PF party at polls that look set to further cement one-party rule.
Morgan Tsvangirai, veteran leader of the MDC, was among the most prominent critics of Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF, but he has been forced out of the action by colon cancer.
The party’s history of splits has also returned, despite an agreement last year enabling the MDC to lead an united opposition into the elections.
“It is going to be an uphill task for the MDC facing ZANU-PF which is being transformed under its new leadership,” Harare-based political analyst Alexander Rusero told AFP.
“Without Tsvangirai, there is no figure who can make a meaningful impact in terms of challenging the ruling party.”
Mugabe’s downfall in November — and former deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rise to succeed him — gave many Zimbabweans some hope of change after decades of authoritarian rule.
Mnangagwa is a long-time Mugabe ally and a ZANU-PF veteran hardliner.
But he has vowed to fight corruption, revive the moribund economy and hold fair elections — messages that may be popular for many voters fearful of abrupt change.
The London-based Africa Research Institute said in a briefing paper that Mnangagwa would be able to “count on a great deal of goodwill” before the elections.
The vote — previously expected in late July or August — will choose the president and both houses of parliament.
Under Mugabe, who ruled since 1980, elections were marred by vote-rigging, intimidation and violent suppression of the opposition.
Mnangagwa has promised to allow international election observers, and to accept the result if he loses — a scenario that observers say is unlikely.
Former trade unionist Tsvangirai, 65, is by far the opposition’s most recognisable face, but chemotherapy has left him frail and he has hinted at retirement.
“It is unfortunate that Tsvangirai is not well and not able to lead the MDC in this crucial election,” said Rushweat Mukundu, an analyst at Zimbabwe Democratic Institute.
“A resounding defeat could even spell the end of the MDC, especially if the Mnangagwa government resolves some of the economic hardships affecting Zimbabweans.”
Mnangagwa — who can also rely on the discreet support of the military — has sounded confident since coming to power, declaring “I have no doubt I will sweep the elections.”
Tsvangirai then pulled out of the run-off after a wave of deadly violence unleashed by Mugabe supporters, and the MDC entered into a troubled coalition government.
In the 2013 elections, Mugabe won the presidential vote 62 percent to Tsvangirai’s 34 percent, with a similar result in the national assembly result.
Bickering among the three MDC deputies Nelson Chamisa, Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe could now tear the party apart for the third time since its formation in 1999.
The tensions have undermined efforts to have a “unified opposition” for the elections formed by Tsvangirai, his former allies Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube and a host of small opposition parties.
MDC spokesman Obert Gutu even plans to stand for the same constituency seat in Harare as Biti, the respected finance minister in the 2009-2013 coalition government.
“Of course the party is greatly affected by the health of president Tsvangirai. We hope he recovers soon,” MDC secretary-general Douglas Mwonzora told AFP.
“He left vice-president Elias Mudzuri in charge and we are giving him as much support as we can. We are preparing for elections.”
But, without the ousted Mugabe as its prime target, the MDC must adapt to Zimbabwe’s new politics.
“Time is running out for the party,” said independent political analyst Maxwell Saungweme.
“With the confusion in the MDC, Mnangagwa’s main opposition is from the economy.”