Zimbabwe's prospects appeared promising in 1980, as it gained independence after a long liberation war. The country exhibited steady economic growth, enabling the new government to provide free education and widespread access to health care. Challenges grew in the 1990s, however. Rising inflation and unemployment bred discontent, as evidenced by regular student and labour protests, and led in 1999 to the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The new party surprised many with its initial success, campaigning against a 2000 referendum that would have legalised the president's continued rule, made government officials immune from prosecution, and allowed the uncompensated seizure of white-owned land for redistribution to black farmers. The referendum failed, and the MDC won nearly half the seats in the 2000 parliamentary election. The ruling party has since taken numerous, often undemocratic actions to bolster its power, including an aggressive land redistribution policy. President Robert Mugabe's government is seen as autocratic and repressive by its critics, and its human rights record is poor.
The regime suppresses freedom of speech and assembly, and many contend that the government restricts access to food, already scarce, in opposition areas. The MDC, divided over how to respond, split into two factions in 2005, hampering its ability to challenge the ruling party. Mugabe has repeatedly extended his rule and was chosen by his party to stand as its presidential candidate again in the 29 March 2008 elections. A behind-the-scenes power struggle within his party adds to questions regarding the country's future; former finance minister and ex-ruling party member Simba Makoni will stand against Mugabe, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in the presidential race. Zimbabwe's economic output has decreased 40% since 1998, official inflation rose above 8000% in 2007, and unemployment is estimated at over 80%. A widely criticised urban clean-up program in 2005 resulted in the demolition of thousands of homes and businesses in poor urban areas, seen by the government as a base of MDC support. The adult HIV infection rate of 20% has contributed to a sharp drop in life expectancy, and over a third of the population is expected to require food aid in 2008.
Deteriorating conditions in the country have led many to emigrate to neighbouring countries, creating a substantial burden on the region.