Zimbabwe hangs in a dangerous political limbo: A ruling party clique clings to power amid rumors of a coup if President Robert Mugabe loses the upcoming presidential runoff. His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, far from facing down military hard-liners, has been out of the country for weeks, fearing assassination.
As regional leaders dither, a new wave of systematic abductions and killings of top opposition activists suggests a regime that is unwilling to leave office, even if it loses the second round of voting, scheduled for the end of next month.
"There's no way we are going to lose the runoff," one senior ruling party figure said. "We are going to make sure of that. If we lose the runoff, then the army will take over.
"Never be fooled that Tsvangirai will rule this country. Never," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in an interview in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
Rights organizations, such as Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, say the level and intensity of the violence far surpasses that surrounding elections in 2000 and 2002. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change says 43 activists are known to have been killed since the March 29 vote.
The opposition says the government is targeting its top activists and officials and that at least six have been abducted in the last 10 days by heavily armed security officials. Four have been found dead, it says, their bodies showing signs of severe beating and torture. Ten others are missing and feared dead.
MDC activist Tonderai Ndira was dragged from his bed last week by eight security operatives. His body was found Wednesday, dumped in the bush. His brother Barnabas said Ndira's face had been beaten so badly it was unrecognizable.
Some analysts see the threat of a coup growing, convinced that the punitive violence in Zimbabwe has only increased Mugabe's unpopularity since he was shocked to find himself in second place behind Tsvangirai in the March vote. But others predict the regime, wary of regional isolation, will opt for at least the pretense of legitimacy, rigging the elections rather than using military force to overturn a Tsvangirai runoff victory.
Mugabe is backed by a group of cronies that includes Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Defense Forces Commander Gen. Constantine Chiwenga and Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri. Several elite units, including the Presidential Guard, the Fifth Brigade and the National Rapid Reaction Force, are loyal to his regime.
But with the military rank and file deeply disgruntled over their working conditions and angry about the farms, SUVs and fancy lifestyles of their commanders, some predict that a coup would split the army.
"What they also have to worry about is whether they can keep their troops with them," said a Harare diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's a great risk they will split the very institution they rely on for support."
In fact, the rank and file are so alienated that they have not been called in to intimidate and attack opposition members, as they have been in the past.
"It's the senior officers running the terror campaign in the rural areas," said Morris, 35, an army captain who spoke to The Times by phone, declining to allow his second name to be published for fear of reprisal.
"They're burning houses and beating people. It's being done by colonels and lieutenant colonels. The lower ranks don't want what is happening. If the Old Man lost, he should just give up. He should respect the wishes of the people," said Morris, referring to the 84-year-old Mugabe. "Soldiers are very much angry about him. They want him removed from power.
"Soldiers go about in tattered uniforms," Morris said. "Everything is pathetic. Of all the general population, the people hardest hit are the military. There's no food in the camps. The officers keep giving us empty promises. At times there are no rations."
He said some senior officers were also no longer loyal to Mugabe.
"The problem now is they can't come out, because the higher ranks, the generals, are loyal to the ruling party. They can't come out for fear of their lives."
The ruling ZANU-PF party lost control of parliament in the March elections, and, according to official results, Tsvangirai won about 48% of the presidential vote compared with 43% for Mugabe, necessitating the June 27 runoff. The opposition insists that Tsvangirai won in the first round, with 50.3%, and the United States and Britain have questioned the credibility of the official results.
Mnangagwa, the most powerful figure behind Mugabe, is the leader of one of two rival factions in ZANU-PF that have been fighting over succession since last year. As the president's heir apparent, Mnangagwa has the most to lose from a Mugabe defeat. When Mugabe faced a potential challenge last year, Mnangagwa swung his support to him on the understanding that he would succeed him six months after the election.
Mnangagwa, like the so-called securocrats in the security apparatus, fears prosecution if Tsvangirai wins. He was security minister during massacres in Matabeleland in the early 1980s in which thousands of Mugabe's political opponents were killed. The precedent-setting war-crimes prosecution of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor has complicated the departure of Mugabe's regime.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a watchdog organization, said there was "a growing risk of a coup either before the runoff, in a preemptive move to deny Tsvangirai victory, or after a Tsvangirai win."
Opposition lawmaker David Coltart said he believed there was a risk of a coup, but he added, "I think they're intent on trying to give it some sort of fig leaf of legitimacy through an election.
"Their first prize is obviously votes in the ballot box to get Mugabe to win. Their Plan B, if they don't feel that will happen, is that they will just blatantly rig the election. An openly declared coup would be very difficult for the region to stomach."
The ZANU-PF runoff "campaign," which is under the control of top military commanders, consists of ubiquitous newspaper advertising, state media propaganda and the violence against the opposition.
Witnesses and victims interviewed by The Times have named ruling party officials as helping oversee the violence, with beatings carried out mainly by mobs of ruling party youths.
It is unclear what effect the violence will have on the voter turnout. One aim seems to be to send a signal to voters that whatever they do, Tsvangirai will never rule, making voting for him futile and dangerous.
If the regime does hold on to power, it would be "catastrophic," according to the ICG report. It says the economy's decline would intensify, with more Zimbabweans fleeing the country, "while inflation, unemployment and the resultant massive suffering would increase."
Even if it stays in power through a coup or election fraud, said the diplomat, "you have to ask yourself, 'Well, then what do they do?' They have no options for any sustainable situation here. They have no resources. There's not a great deal left to loot. You can't dig gold out of the ground without electricity. They're completely isolated."
A special correspondent in Harare contributed to this report.