HARARE – Former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith says he doubts Zimbabwe's weekend parliamentary elections will be free or fair but believes the opposition has a chance of defeating President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.
"There has not been an honest election in this country since 1980," the ex-prime minister told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday. "I don't think this one will be any different. The evidence available suggests it will not be free or fair."
Smith, who led Rhodesia to a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 and then defied world opinion by keeping a minority white government in power until its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980, said the opposition would win by a landslide if the election was not rigged.
"There is no doubt the country is fed up with this government," he said. "But the government can't see the writing on the wall... they seem to think they have a divine right to rule."
Smith no longer has much political credibility in Zimbabwe, but at the age of 80 still commands some respect among the white community and even from some black people.
But he remains a thorn in the flesh of Mugabe's government, which accuses the opposition of "selling out" to the minority white population and foreign interests.
Mugabe has made race a central issue of the election, which follows widespread invasions of white-owned farms by veterans of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war and threats to nationalize foreign-owned mines.
Smith's farm is one of over 800 which have been designated for takeover by the government.
Has Not Spoken to Mugabe Since 1981
Now a more frail and stooped figure than the man who vowed in 1976 that "never in a 1,000 years" would there be majority rule in the country, Smith was speaking at his home in suburban Harare.
The garden gate was wide open, the front door ajar. The lack of security was a contrast with Mugabe, who has a phalanx of bodyguards.
"I'm happy to walk around and do my own thing," he said. "I've got as many black people coming to see me as whites. They tell me 'why don't you tell Mr Mugabe how to run the economy, we used to live better under you'."
He said he had not spoken personally to Mugabe since 1981 when, he said, the Zimbabwe President appeared to "change overnight."
"I had regular meetings with Mugabe. He used to welcome me and thank me for giving him the benefit of my experience," Smith said.
He said that after initially appearing to allow free enterprise and market forces to set the pace for Zimbabwe's economy, Mugabe reverted to the brand of Marxist state control that has characterized his rule ever since.
"I told Mugabe that I would have to criticize him for that," Smith said. "He didn't even bid me goodbye and he has never spoken to me since."
Smith, his face still bearing the scars of the injuries he received as a fighter pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force during World War Two, said he believed a change of government in Zimbabwe could herald a new era of prosperity in the southern African country.
"There is a great deal of goodwill in the international community, but that goodwill is being withheld because of this government," he said.
"I am certain that if the government changes, the opportunities for this country are very good."