Emmerson Mnangagwa artfully disguised the manoeuvre that ousted Robert Mugabe from 37 years in power last year as a 'military-assisted transition' rather than a military coup. He thereby escaped suspension from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), which officially outlaw coups. He also largely evaded the censure of the wider international community.
Will this smooth, though also ruthless, operator again outfox international donors, creditors and investors this year by presenting a plausible impression of free and fair elections to win their financial support - while relinquishing none of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front's (Zanu-PF) firm grip on power?
A large infusion of foreign capital will be crucial to Mnangagwa's plans to revive the economy which Mugabe, eyes firmly fixed on power and ideology, ran into the ground. Analysts mostly agree that Mnangagwa is determined to revive the economy, but that it won't be easy.
Derek Matyszak, a Harare-based senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), believes large-scale investment would continue to be deterred by the Indigenisation and Empowerment Act. This act obliges foreign businesses to surrender majority ownership to Zimbabweans (unless it is amended to reflect Mnangagwa's policy pronouncements). He also believes investment would be deterred by Zanu-PF's mass seizure of white farms, which shattered confidence in the sanctity of private ownership.
It is possible that Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF could win a completely free and fair election
Mnangagwa has said he will ease the act so as to apply only to platinum and diamond mining and has promised to pay compensation to white farmers and return land to some. But Matyszak notes that he will probably tread carefully, especially on the latter, as more than 300 000 smallholder farmers who benefited from the land seizure are a critical component of Zanu-PF's constituency.
To the international financial institutions and donor governments, perhaps the bigger question will be whether he will also liberalise Zimbabwe's politics by loosening Zanu-PF's iron grip on power. Further, one may add, will economic revival depend on this? Mnangagwa has presented himself as a political reformer and has promised free and fair elections, which are expected to be held around August, although there are unconfirmed rumours that he wants to postpone them by three years.
There are good reasons to doubt his sincerity. He was after all a key player in Mugabe's manipulated election victories down the years. He also left opposition leaders and neutral technocrats out of his first cabinet, packing it with loyalists and military officers.
It is possible, even probable, that Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF could win a completely free and fair election. They will, for one thing, be riding a wave of goodwill for having ousted Mugabe and his unpopular wife Grace. And the opposition is likely to be in some disarray. Morgan Tsvangirai, Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti - the original leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change before it splintered over the years - have indeed now plastered over their sharp divisions to form an election coalition, with two smaller parties. The coalition has chosen Tsvangirai as its sole presidential candidate. But he has cancer and seems unlikely to be fit to run for office, opening up what could be a bitter succession contest.
Even so, Mnangagwa would probably not want to take chances. He will be fighting an election with a Zanu-PF still licking its wounds from the November 'coup' which was essentially the climax of an internal party power struggle. The defeated G40 faction, which included Grace and with exiled spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo as its mouthpiece, is doing its best to undermine Mnangagwa.
Will the infusion of foreign capital depend on Mnangagwa liberalising Zimbabwe's political system?
It is claiming that he has little support in the three Mashonaland provinces and even less in the Matabeleland provinces, which have not forgotten his prominent role in the 1980s Gukurahundi massacre of Ndebele people.
Matyszak believes, though, that Moyo and company are whistling in the dark, and that the Zanu-PF faithful will fall in behind Mnangagwa just because he's the new boss. He recalls how Zanu-PF's central committee and provincial structures all swore undying fealty to Robert and Grace Mugabe after Mnangagwa was fired last November - and then all switched allegiance within days after Mnangagwa seized power.
He also notes that one of Mnangagwa's early policy acts was to secure the loyalty of chiefs - by buying them all Isuzu double-cabs - to ensure they delivered the rural vote which constitutes 67-70% at least of the electorate and on which Zanu-PF heavily depends, having lost the cities.
Mnangagwa is not called the crocodile for nothing. Big electoral reforms such as an accurate voters roll and, even more critically, breaking the stranglehold that the security agencies secretly have on the nominally independent Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, seem unlikely. But will that matter in the end? Will the necessary infusion of foreign capital be dependent on Mnangagwa fully liberalising Zimbabwe's political system? Will the international community after all demand fully free and fair elections?
The International Crisis Group seems to think so. It said recently that Mnangagwa had so far shown no signs of implementing the raft of necessary electoral reforms which he would need to do fast 'lest the vote be flawed and fail to deliver the required legitimacy for donors to re-engage'. Matyszak suggests otherwise, believing that investors, creditors and donors are so relieved to see the back of Mugabe that they will give Mnangagwa a pass if he just produces a plausibly free and fair poll. Investment could start to flow even before the election, to beat the competition.
With suitors lining up to proposition Mnangagwa, will political conditionality go out the window?
Matyszak believes Britain, Mugabe's arch-enemy, seems particularly inclined to gloss over any signs of poor governance by the new administration. British officials strongly deny this, saying the misperception is based on the fact that the UK ambassador to Harare did indeed engage Mnangagwa a while ago, but that was only because she correctly predicted his victory in the bitter battle to succeed Mugabe.
'But we don't endorse Mnangagwa personally,' one official insisted, though acknowledging that having Mugabe out of the way certainly enabled it now to have 'an adult, grown-up' relationship with Zimbabwe. London is also discussing Zimbabwe's quick return to the Commonwealth. If Zimbabwe agrees, the organisation will offer to send a Commonwealth election observer mission to the elections. Its judgement will be more credible to foreign capital than the exclusively African election observer missions Mugabe insisted on, Britain says.
Britain, officials say, will also insist on deeper political reforms before endorsing the large International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt relief package it believes will be essential to kick-start Zimbabwe's economy.
Mnangagwa will later this month attend the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos to woo mainly Western investors. However UK officials also note that he will undertake a state visit to China in April and that if President Xi Jinping opens up the coffers with no political strings attached, Mnangagwa may have less need for a conditional Western financial injection.
With so many suitors from all sides lining up to proposition Mnangagwa, one wonders if indeed political conditionality won't go out the window. Mnangagwa's saving graces - his objectivity, rationality and pragmatism, as Matyszak points out, and his lack of the obsessive political ideology, anti-Western imperialism and racism which so repelled the world from Mugabe - may just be enough to help him pull off another 'coup' - the feat of reviving the economy while relinquishing not an iota of real power.
Patient democracy, it seems, will have to keep waiting.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant