The Rhodesian Front Party, which dominated politics from its formation in March 1962 until the establishment of majority rule in 1979, advocated racial separation, division of land on a racial basis, and the protection of the Rhodesian whites. The party won all 20 Assembly seats reserved for whites in both the 1979 and 1980 elections, and in 1981, it changed its name to the Republican Front Party (RFP). Ian Smith, who served (1964–79) as prime minister, remained as party leader until his suspension from Parliament in 1987. He was succeeded by Mark Partridge. The name of the party had previously been changed again to the Conservative Alliance Zimbabwe (CAZ). The CAZ won 15 of the 20 seats allotted to whites in the 1985 elections.
The principal black parties in Zimbabwean politics originated in the struggle for independence along ethnic lines. The Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) was formed in December 1961 and led by Joshua Nkomo. It was split in July 1963 by the creation of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and later by Robert Mugabe. ZAPU's constituency was eventually reduced to the Ndebele minority, while ZANU gained wide support among the Shona ethnic group. Both ZAPU and ZANU took up arms against the government and in 1976 allied themselves in the Patriotic Front (PF).
After Bishop Abel Muzorewa accepted the Smith government's proposal for an internal constitutional settlement in 1978, his followers, now known as the United African National Council (UANC), emerged as the major party. In elections on 17–21 April 1979, the UANC captured a majority of 51 seats in the new Assembly, and Muzorewa became the nation's first black prime minister. The elections, however, were boycotted by the PF, which continued its armed opposition to the government.
Under British auspices, a new constitutional settlement obtained PF approval in 1979, and the elections of 27–29 February 1980 were contested by nine parties, including ZANU-Patriotic Front, led by Robert Mugabe, and ZAPU (which registered under the name Popular Front). Of the 80 Assembly seats elected from the common rolls, ZANU-Patriotic Front took 57, Popular Front (or ZAPU) 20, and UNAC 3. In the July 1985 elections, ZANU-PF won 63 seats, PF-ZAPU, 15. After much enmity and bitterness during most of the 1980s, ZAPU and ZANU finally agreed to merge in late 1987 under the name of ZANU-PF and the merger was consummated in December 1989.
President Mugabe declared his intention to make Zimbabwe a one-party state by 1990. He regarded his party's victory in the 1990 elections as a mandate to proceed with his plans to establish ZANU-PF as the only legal party. He was soon turned away from that scheme by strong pressure from creditor governments abroad and a chorus of opposition domestically, including from within ZANU-PF. Zimbabwe got caught up in the general press throughout tropical Africa for greater decentralization of power and competitive party politics.
New parties began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s in preparation for the expected elections in 1995. Tekere's Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) contested the 1990 elections with some success. The UANC, still led by Muzorewa, merged with ZUM in January 1994. In January, longtime Mugabe rival Sithole returned from exile and created his own party, also using the ZANU rubric of ZANU-Ndonga or sometimes ZANUSithole.
In March 1993, former Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena launched the Forum Party, an outgrowth of the pressure group, Forum for Democratic Reform. The CAZ is still active, as is the Democratic Party, which has emerged from a split within ZUM.
In 1996 elections for Executive President, Robert Mugabe, the longtime ruler of Zimbabwe, won 93% of the vote, while his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, won 98% of the available seats in elections held a year earlier. However, in both elections it was widely accepted that the result had been predetermined. The Zimbabwe government made little pretense of conducting a free and fair election.
Parliamentary elections were scheduled for April 2000, but were postponed until June. Two new strong political parties were formed to challenge Mugabe's ZANU-PF. The United Democratic Front (UDF) party was launched by Lupi Mushayakarara, former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith, Abel Muzorewa, and Ndabaningi Sithole, a pack of leaders that Mugabe dismissed as "ghosts of the past." A more formidable opponent emerged in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC successfully campaigned against a government-sponsored draft constitution in the national referendum held in February 2000 with the government securing 45% of the national referendum votes against 55% for the opposition. The opposition argued that the draft constitution further entrenched executive rule allowing Mugabe to dissolve cabinet and parliament, and to rule by decree. Led by the MDC, opposition parties won nearly half of the seats in the House of Assembly in the June 2000 elections.
Challenges to the future viability of the MDC include leadership, credibility on the streets, articulation of position on contentious issues, and resource base. It remains to be seen whether the MDC can transform itself in a sustainable way from a broad-based civic movement opposed to Mugabe into an organized political entity representing and voicing the interests of a defined constituency all the while contesting power.