Robert Mugabe’s fall in November last year was expected to be a blessing for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and to put it in a position to seize upon the former president’s demise.
But the event has proved to be a double-edged sword for the alliance.
Ahead of this year’s elections, the hand of the ruling Zanu-PF — once on the brink of implosion because of succession fights — has been strengthened.
New president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also the party leader, is intent on pulling Zimbabwe out of the cave of isolation it has been holed up in for the past 20 years.
Mnangagwa’s mission bodes ill for the opposition, particularly as the MDC has long relied on the wrecking of the economy by Zanu-PF to win over voters.
A much bigger problem for the opposition, however, is that the international community — which it once captivated — is warming up to Mnangagwa. He made his international debut last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he mixed and mingled with global business elites.
In an indication of the interest that there is to work with the new leader, Britain’s new minister of state for Africa, Harriet Baldwin, visited Harare last Thursday on her maiden trip to the continent. London is keen for Harare’s return to the Commonwealth, from which the country withdrew in 2003 under Mugabe’s watch.
Later this month, Russia’s foreign affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov, is also set to visit Harare, to strengthen economic and political ties.
Political observers suggest that a "reformed" Zanu-PF, embodied by Mnangagwa, is far more attractive to the international community than the deeply fractured opposition.
"The MDC is weak and divided, and is a shadow of its former self. It has suffered not just from its own internal wrangling, but also from a sustained battering by the state under Zanu-PF’s control," says Tara O’Connor, executive director of Africa Risk Consulting in London.
The opposition alliance is made up of various parties, including the splinter MDC parties led by Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti. Also part of the group are Agrippa Mutambara of Zimbabwe People First, Jacob Ngarivhume’s Transform Zimbabwe and Denford Musiyarira of Zanu Ndonga.
The economy, which had been in free fall for years, now appears to have caught the eye of Harare’s new rulers. Mnangagwa is courting foreign investors and has been vocal about his intention to pay off the country’s debts to the IMF and the World Bank. Zimbabwe’s external debt is about US$10.1bn.
In its latest report on the country BMI, a Fitch Group research company, said there was "a more optimistic outlook for foreign financing" under Zimbabwe’s new reform-minded president, and that his appointment would "offer a boost to investor sentiment".
The signs of change are becoming apparent. The 51% indigenisation law has largely been scrapped, though it remains applicable to diamond and platinum mining.
Farm invasions, which had long been a feature of Zimbabwe’s lack of respect for property rights, have been stopped. The ministry of lands has given the country’s remaining white commercial farmers 99-year leases, as the Mnangagwa administration extends an olive branch to resuscitate agricultural production.
The change has been welcomed by the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), as under the previous arrangement white farmers had only five-year leases that could be revoked if an indigenous person expressed interest in the land they occupied.
"What the new offer should do is to restore confidence in property rights ... it gives farmers security," says Ben Gilpin, director of the CFU.
The swift changes and the push to repair the economy have taken the wind out of the sails of the opposition. The accusation flung at the 75-year-old Mnangagwa by MDC officials is that he "stole [the MDC’s] ideas".
But the opposition alliance’s troubles run far deeper.
Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is ill, and the alliance is yet to bring to voters a compelling message to woo them.
Its "Mugabe must go" refrain, which was a popular election campaign slogan for years, has now lost traction.
A senior MDC official says: "Things are not as well as we would have liked for them to be with Tsvangirai. Also, we have already lost a month, in terms of the election campaigning, as he [Tsvangirai] has been in hospital."
Tsvangirai was diagnosed with colon cancer and regularly receives treatment in SA.
Party sources say the cancer has spread, though officially the MDC says there is nothing to be alarmed about.
But increasingly these days the alliance has had to fight off rumours on social media that its leader had passed away, and questions surge over Tsvangirai’s fitness to lead the opposition alliance.
The only sight of Tsvangirai the public has had this year related to a meeting held at his private residence in Highlands in Harare with Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga.
In the strongest sign that Tsvangirai’s health was taking a personal toll on him, he indicated last month that he was contemplating handing over the baton to younger leaders.
"I am looking at the imminent prospect of us, as the older generation, leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task that we started together so many years ago, with our full blessing and support," Tsvangirai said.
The MDC has three deputies: Thokozani Khupe, Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa.
Tsvangirai’s comments have sparked a race to take over from him — causing instability, which could weigh on the opposition alliance.
In his absence, as he undergoes treatment, Tsvangirai has appointed Mudzuri as the acting MDC president and Chamisa as the acting MDC alliance leader.
Piers Pigou, director of the International Crisis Group, says these moves will paper over the cracks, but that the MDC still faces major challenges that will bear on the efficiency of the alliance. "The opposition alliance must resolve leadership issues, given that Tsvangirai is unlikely to be a viable election candidate. The internal divisions must be bridged," he says.
Pigou also points out that the alliance has no resources.
"There is an appetite for alternatives among Zimbabweans," he says.
"The challenge is whether the current political opposition can provide a candidate who is credible and captures the imagination of the people."
But how to achieve unity among the opposition’s ranks is the elusive question.
For this year’s elections there are 75 registered political parties, an increase from the 35 previously registered.
Given the deep fractures in the opposition, Mnangagwa, who will contest his first poll this year, has already boasted that there is "no opposition to talk of".
It seems the election might just be Mnangagwa’s to lose.