The 'menacing cloud' hanging over Zimbabwe elections

It is four years since Robert Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal

The authorities in Zimbabwe have been painting a rosy picture of the country's economic prospects but concern is mounting about the forthcoming elections, following the imprisonment of supporters of the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The jacaranda trees are in bloom here - bright purple smudges looming over the broad, hot, drowsy streets of Harare.

It is four years now since this country was rescued from a failed election, violence and economic ruin by a power-sharing deal that has somehow survived.

Today, schools are open. The shops are full. Corruption may be rampant but at least hyperinflation is a distant memory. In the crowded markets, impossibly grubby American dollar bills - now the national currency - slide from hand to hand.

Start Quote

"After the deaths and torture and beatings of 2008, people feel like, 'If we can survive that, we can survive anything'”

End Quote Petina Gappah Zimbabwean novelist

After so much drama, and misery, Zimbabwe is starting to feel like just another normal but disappointing African nation.

Picture a precociously gifted teenager, who survived a car crash and a coma, but was never quite the same again.

"We're optimists," says Petina Gappah, "almost to a fault."

She is a well known novelist, who has come home full of energy and determination following years spent abroad.

"After the deaths and torture and beatings of 2008," she says, "people feel like: 'If we can survive that, we can survive anything.'"

But Zimbabwe's optimism and its resilience are about to be put to the test once more.

Four years on and election season is finally approaching again - like a menacing cloud above those jacaranda trees.

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"Do unto others as you would others do unto you…" said President Robert Mugabe the other day, urging people to vote freely, and in peace.

He is 88 now and visibly frail - his health and longevity the subject of much speculation and some wishful thinking.

He can still stand and speak in public for an hour and a half. But his usual venom is diluted these days by an almost priestly preoccupation with respect and tolerance.

Does he mean it? Has age softened Mr Mugabe? It seems unlikely. But perhaps it does not really matter any more.

Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honour during Defence Forces Day celebrations

His slight frame is almost eclipsed by the burly generals who crowd around him and who appear to act as if the state, Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, even the rule of law, are their personal property.

Right now, for instance, dozens of members of the Movement for Democratic Change party are in jail. The MDC is the former opposition party terrorised into pulling out of the 2008 elections and now part of the unity government.

One group of 29 have been locked up for 17 months - all accused of murdering a policeman. On Wednesday, an MDC minister was arrested for allegedly insulting President Mugabe.

The charges look to many here like a typical Zanu-PF plot, part of a systematic campaign of intimidation - a beating here, a petrol bomb there - that seems destined to intensify as next year's elections draw closer.

You would think the MDC's leader - now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, would be up in arms about the arrests.

Morgan Tsvangirai speaks at an MDC party rally Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009

But four years in a power-sharing government with Zanu-PF have taken their toll.

Joining that government may have been a brave move - one that saved Zimbabwe from collapse - but the daily grind of politics and compromise has left the MDC looking diminished and unprepared.

Credible allegations of corruption are circling.

Mr Tsvangirai himself has been caught up in an undignified scandal about which of his many recent girlfriends is, or should be, his new wife.

"I am extremely disappointed," says Petina Gappah. "He should have been more prudent. I'm not sure that Mr Tsvangirai is the best that the MDC has to offer."

None of this will be remembered, of course, if Mr Tsvangirai rallies and wins the presidency next year in a free and fair election and Mr Mugabe slips quietly into retirement.

But how likely is that? Lots of time and foreign money is being spent right now on trying to produce a new constitution to make sure there is a level political playing field, and no repeat of the violence of 2008.

But even if some version of that constitution is approved, there is no reason to expect that the security forces or the state media will abandon their furious loyalty to Mr Mugabe.

This may be a nation of optimists but the word "election" scares people. I have spent some time on the streets here trying to talk to shoppers and commuters about politics. Life is a little better now, many will concede, but mention President Mugabe and eyes flicker and mouths close.

"You have to be brave to talk about that," one man said to me, "people are watching."

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Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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