THE Zimbabwean political situation remains touch-and-go with no clues of what is likely to happen in the short-to-medium term, especially given the current turmoil within the ruling Zanu PF and the opposition MDC ranks.
The political crisis, characterised by erosion of the democratic culture and institutional collapse, is worsened by the economic malaise which is rapidly widening and deepening. This has left the country in an undeclared state of emergency.
The unannounced banning of democratic protests by opposition and civil society movements -- except those staged by Zanu PF supporters -- provides the clearest sign yet of a tacit state of emergency.
There are several untested suppositions about what is likely to happen after the departure of President Robert Mugabe by natural causes or otherwise.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank run by retired statesmen, last week issued a report on Zimbabwe warning of possible political instability and violence in the country.
It said Zimbabwe was almost irretrievably hurtling towards being a failed state plagued by insecurity and chaos. It said the risk of anarchy was high because of the current political turmoil, economic emergency, heightened repression and deepening public anger.
The group noted Mugabe's regime is increasingly becoming "desperate and dangerous" due to its growing paranoia caused by rising opposition to its policies and international isolation.
While chances of Zimbabwe becoming stateless are very slim, there are conditions on the ground which provide a hotbed for political turbulence.
The country is fractured on many fronts. Divisions within Zanu PF and the MDC are now as profound as the differences between them. The two parties are reeling from vicious power struggles.
The Zanu PF situation is more scary because of the scamble to succeed Mugabe. It is not clear what is likely to happen after Mugabe but there are fears Zanu PF will split into at least two factions along regional and ethnic fault lines. If that were to happen, it would create a breeding ground for instability and violence.
Zanu PF appears fragile because of its regional and tribal anatomy. In the past the party showed signs of volatility and strain, especially in a state of political flux where shifts and changes in dynamics were difficult to manage.
Zanu PF camps are already wound up for a fight. The Tsholotsho episode cast the die. The internal wrangling could yield a powerful group which may sort out the situation. The defeated group might fall in line, scatter into a toothless rabble or wreak political havoc unless contained.
In the process, it is possible a new leader would emerge to unite the factions. A realignment of forces might take place and resolve the situation.
It is however also possible the army might intervene claiming to be trying to restore order. The danger of military intervention now looms large given the ongoing militarisation of state institutions.
Napoleonic military leaders invariably emerge in conditions of instability, claiming to be re-establishing order. The crumbling economy has created conditions for army involvement in civilian affairs.
As a result, the army and other state security agencies have of late been gaining influence in civilian institutions.
The military's heavy involvement in the state machinery and government policy formulation has left it well-placed to seize power if push comes to shove. Because of a power vacuum developing in Zanu PF, the army generals are said to be waiting in the wings to outflank politicians in the ultimate scramble for power likely to break out when Mugabe leaves, in particular if his departure is sudden.
But it is also important to look at the structure and internal dynamics in the army to assess possibilities of military intervention. The top brass in the army -- but not everybody -- appears involved in Zanu PF politics and as a result would want the incumbent regime to survive. They are also part of the political elite and have their interests at stake if the status quo changes.
However, the middle and lower ranks have not benefited as much. In fact, lower ranks have been protesting poor salaries and working conditions, meaning their interests are not well served by the system.
In the event generals want unqualified support to claim political power, junior soldiers might baulk at supporting a project designed to preserve a system that has impoverished them.
Besides, the military culture in Zimbabwe, shaped by British traditions, and not the Russians and Chinese who supported the anti-colonial struggle, preclude an easy manipulation of the structures to blatantly support a political cause. There is also the problem of regional and international factors. Southern Africa does not have a history of military coups and appears determined to keep that clean sheet. The international community, including the African Union, is unlikely to tolerate military rule in Zimbabwe.
In the MDC, it appears the current divide will continue until the Zanu PF crisis develops enough to shape the direction of national politics, and by implication the economy. An inter-party realignment of forces could then occur and a clearer picture of the parameters of party politics would emerge from the current jungle.
While it is not known for certain what will happen after Mugabe, what is clear is that the situation in Zimbabwe remains up in the air. A storm could be brewing on the horizon before the weather clears!