Originally administered by the British South Africa Company, Southern Rhodesia (as it was then known) became an internally self-governing British colony in 1923. In 1953, it joined Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, but in 1963 it reverted to a separate status. On 11 November 1965, Prime Minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia's independence cementing white control over the government. Great Britain refused to accept Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) because the Smith government systematically prevented black majority rule and practiced economic exclusion. After a 1965 meeting between British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Ian Smith failed to produce any progress toward majority rule, the United Nations (UN) imposed international sanctions on Rhodesia. Subsequently, on 20 June 1969, Rhodesia declared itself a republic and Britain suspended diplomatic and economic ties with Rhodesia.
A decade of armed struggle in the 1970s, led by Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), followed the UDI. On 18 April 1980, Zimbabwe/Rhodesia became the Republic of Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe as prime minister. Under the Constitution that went into effect that day, 20 of the 100 seats in the National Assembly were reserved for a white constituency, while the remaining 80 seats were elected by registered voters (excluding those who were white). In 1987, the Constitution was amended to end the separate roll for white voters, effectively diminishing white participation in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the position of prime minister was replaced in favor of an executive president who is elected for a six-year term. Members of the National Assembly elected Robert Mugabe as president on 30 December 1987, and he was popularly elected on 28–30 March 1990 following a constitutional revision. Also in 1987, ZANU and ZAPU merged and Joshua Nkomo became one of two vice presidents.
In 1990, the upper house (Senate) was abolished. The present legislature, the House of Assembly, consists of 150 members, of which 120 are popularly elected to six year terms, ten appointed by traditional chiefs, and 20 appointed by the President. While the House of Assembly possesses primary legislative power, policy-making power has migrated to the cabinet and to Mugabe's party. A new party Constitution (1989) enlarged the ZANU's Politburo from 15 to 26 and the Central Committee was expanded to 150 members. Mugabe's attempt to create a de facto one-party state in 1990 was defeated by the politburo, but Mugabe remained firmly in control as party president.
Though Mugabe was reelected as executive president on 17 March 1996, he increasingly had to rule by intimidation, or by pandering to the population, with land seizures. On 12-13 February 2000, voters rejected a new Constitution indicating a growing popularity for Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In ZANU-PF circles confidence in Mugabe's leadership began to falter. In the run-up to the 24–25 June 2000 parliamentary election, 34 people were killed. ZANU-PF managed to win 62 of 120 elective seats in the House of Assembly, with the MDC taking 57 seats. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai's driver and a poll worker were killed in a gasoline-bomb attack. International observers refused to declare the contest free and fair.
Mugabe's claim to victory in the March 9-11, 2002 polls was soundly rejected by the opposition and the international community as fraudulent, and has been a source of civil unrest and sporadic violence over the past year. Mugabe declared himself the winner with 53.8% to 40.2% for Tsvangirai while others claimed 6.0%. The government prevented as many voters as possible in urban districts favorable to the MDC from registering, reduced the number of urban polling stations by 50% over the 2000 elections, added 664 rural polling stations, conducted a state media barrage, and intimidated the opposition. By some reports, 31 people were killed in January and February and 366 tortured. The U.S., EU, the Commonwealth, and SADC observer teams condemned the election, and the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe for a year. Favorable assessments were given by observers from South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Nigeria, and the African Union.
Tsvangirai was detained twice in early June 2003 amid anti-government protests and accusations of plans to assassinate Mugabe. Tsvangirai poses a serious threat to Mugabe's 23 years in power.