HARARE (AFP) – Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has mastered the ballot box again but his defeated rivals could find new momentum as an opposition force after four fruitless years in a coalition government, analysts say.
Morgan Tsvangirai was crushed in last week's vote, with only 34 percent to 61 for Mugabe, still undefeated since he guided Zimbabwe to independence in 1980.
The picture was scarcely better in parliament where Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change lost its majority and watched Mugabe's ZANU-PF bag 158 of 210 seats.
Allegations of mass rigging were aimed at Mugabe, but increasingly Tsvangirai has been lambasted for allowing himself to be so comprehensively trounced.
Even among his own supporters, some have been asking why he contested the vote at all if he thought it would be unfair and why he stayed in government so long if all his plans for reform were being thwarted.
The MDC quite simply dropped the ball after violent 2008 elections and the formation of a power-sharing government, according to University of Zimbabwe political scientist Eldred Masunungure.
"While the ZANU-PF was focused on rebuilding the party and reconnecting with its constituencies, it appeared that the MDC on the contrary focused on trying to demonstrate effectiveness in government and forgot about party work," said Masunungure.
Its party structures, decimated during the presidential runoff violence five years ago, lay in tatters as MDC took up their ministerial mantle.
The MDC "took the coalition government for an MDC-government. They paid a heavy price for ... abandoning or neglecting party work," said Masunungure.
Worse, the taste of power appeared too sweet for some party officials, who tarnished the party's anti-corruption credentials by living it large in office.
But even after the electoral shellacking, Zimbabwe remains a "highly polarised society" with a large percentage of people firmly opposed to Mugabe's regime, according to Masunungure.
The defeat could well present an opportunity to revive the opposition into a much stronger force riding on the anger and shock over the election results, observers said.
"With this loss, the MDC has all the time to go and re-organise itself," said Rashweat Mukundu of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a think tank.
Tsvangirai's days as party leader may well be numbered, but whoever replaces him will still be able to tap a deep well of anger at Mugabe's rule.
"There is a lot of sympathy for opposition political parties now and there is a lot of indignation against ZANU-PF because of what has happened," said Thabani Nyoni of civil society group Bulawayo Agenda.
There is likely to be a "strong re-emergence of an opposition party which is based on the groundswell of emotion and anger," he added.
The MDC, despite its failings, has survived a series of crises and crackdowns since it was formed in 1999, while many rival opposition parties have sprouted up and fizzled out.
Today there are over a dozen political parties in Zimbabwe, but most of them exist only on paper.
The three other presidential candidates besides Mugabe and Tsvangirai each garnered less than three percent of votes in last Wednesday's poll.
The MDC has effectively brought about a two-party system and remains the face of opposition for millions of Zimbabweans yearning for change.
But unseating ZANU-PF after so many years in power and its iron grip on state agencies remains a monumental task, said Mukundu.
"When you talk of ZANU-PF you are not only contesting against a political party but an institution," he said.
Newly banished to opposition benches, the MDC says its latest beating has helped party members set aside whatever differences existed among them.
Though it will challenge what it calls "flawed" elections in court, the party vowed it will come back stronger from the setback.
"If there is anything which has reunited us... (it) is this theft," said spokesman Douglas Mwonzora, who lost his own parliamentary seat.