After three years of drought, armed insurgency and an increasingly harsh government crackdown on political dissident, tensions in Africa's youngest nation have begun to ease recently due to a combination of acts by men and nature.

Part of the improvement is taking place in the fields of this farm-oriented nation. Zimbabwe's recently harvested food crop proved 30 percent larger than officials had projected earlier, quelling fears of incipient shortages and urban food lines. Recent rains, early for this part of the world, suggest that the drought finally may be easing.

But much of the change is in the political atmosphere, due to a modest but visible relaxation of the government's tight grip on political opposition as it prepares for national elections early next year.

The change began in August, when the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe lifted the last remaining parts of a military curfew it imposed on the southern Matabeleland region in February as part of a crackdown on armed dissidents there. Then early last month, officials released from detention Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, an opposition politician and former prime minister of the biracial government that preceded Zimbabwe's independence. Muzorewa had been held without charge for 10 months.

Last week, officials lifted a four-month ban in two central provinces on meetings by the Zimbabwe African People's Union, opposition leader Joshua Nkomo's political party. And they have granted permits to allow Nkomo to hold the first national congress of his party in nine years here in Harare this weekend.

Accompanying these moves has been a discernible softening of the harsh tone government officials usually employ to describe their opponents. Minister of Home Affairs Simbi Mubako, in announcing the end of the meetings ban, noted approvingly recent statements from leaders of the Nkomo camp condemning the violent activities of rebels in the area.

The government long has maintained, despite Nkomo's repeated denials, that the insurgents receive food, shelter and encouragement from party members.

Mubako's statement was in marked contrast to Mugabe's statement to Parliament two months ago accusing the Zimbabwe African People's Union of planning assassinations of ruling party officials in the provinces as part of what he called a "pre-election strategy."

The atmosphere in this fragile society remains uncertain and subject to sudden change. An unknown number of political prisoners -- perhaps several hundred, according to the State Department's most recent human rights report -- have been held under detention orders for security offenses and the number still behind bars is a state secret. Tensions are said to remain high in Matabeleland, Nkomo's political and ethnic stronghold, where memories are strong of the Army's most recent counterinsurgency campaign in which an unknown number of civilians were killed.

The country's economy, battered by drought and recession, remains weak, although the beginnings of a moderate recovery are discernible.

Although Zimbabwe is nonaligned diplomatically, Mugabe's Marxist rhetoric, including his pledge eventually to transform Zimbabwe into a one-party socialist state under his rule, remains strong. Leaders of his ruling political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union, have indicated recently that they might require all government workers to hold membership cards once a one-party state is established.

Nonetheless, officials and analysts say Mugabe's government is making a conscious effort to ease tensions as a prelude to the elections, which are likely to take place in February and March and would be the second since the country gained independence. They say Mugabe is anxious that the election process appear fair in order to placate Western critics who are likely to scrutinize the balloting closely for signs of intimidation or fraud.

Mugabe is looking for a victory even greater than in 1980, when his party won 57 of 80 contested black seats in the 100-member Parliament. The other 20 seats were reserved for white candidates. He has indicated that he will regard a victory this time as a mandate to move the country toward one-party rule.

Mugabe's opponents are not impressed by the government's moves.

Muzorewa, who controls three parliamentary seats, insisted that despite his recent release, the government has no intention of playing fair in the next election. "They are trying to prove to other people that they are going to have free and fair elections, but they are giving with one hand and taking with another," he said, adding that he already had received reports of local members of Mugabe's party intimidating his supporters.

Nkomo pointed to his recent eviction from his farm outside the southern city of Bulawayo, the culmination of a legal process that began two years ago when the government seized his land after Mugabe charged that Nkomo's followers were secreting arms there for use in a future coup attempt.

"I don't consider that occupying my home is a friendly act," said Nkomo, whose party won 20 seats in the last election.

Still, Nkomo said he was gratified with a government decision last week following the death of his longtime top lieutenant, party vice president Josiah Chinamano. Despite the hostility between the two parties, government officials were quick to declare Chinamano a national hero and authorize his burial at Heroes' Acre, a war memorial outside the capital.

Chinamano's funeral last Saturday served as a rare display of national unity among African politicians whose rhetoric toward each other has grown increasingly tough and provocative in the four years since Zimbabwe became independent.

"Southern Africa is in a sea of turmoil, but internal unity within our borders can tame this tempestuous storm," said President Canaan Banana, summarizing the mood that day. "We Zimbabweans are very patriotic people. We can and should rise above petty political or tribal divisions."