CHIWESHE, Zimbabwe (AFP) – President Robert Mugabe kick-started his election campaign Thursday exuding confidence that Zimbabweans will vote to extend his 33-year rule when they go to the ballot box in three weeks' time.
"On the 31st of this month the whole country will vote ZANU-PF back into government," 89-year-old Mugabe said in an hour-long speech to some 6,000 supporters in Chiweshe, 120 km (75 miles) north of the capital Harare.
Unleashing his trademark populist bravado, Mugabe doubled down on nationalist rhetoric and hit out at his opponents from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, with whom he has been forced to share power for the last four years.
The elections will end that forced and often abusive marriage, but there are mounting fears Mugabe's supporters will not allow the vote to be free and fair or that the voter roll will be rigged.
Previous elections have been marred by bloodshed, to the extent that Mugabe's main rival in 2008, the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, felt forced to withdraw despite winning the first round of polling. Tsvangirai later became prime minister as part of the uneasy power-sharing deal.
"We are a party that has meaning to the people, a party that is naturally a people's party, that addresses the needs that are felt by the people," Mugabe said, in a performance seemingly aimed at brushing aside suggestions the octogenarian is no longer fit for the rigours of the campaign trail.
Thousands of supporters clad in green and yellow t-shirts emblazoned with Mugabe's portrait sang and danced as the veteran leader arrived.
Mugabe -- who launched his election campaign last week calling for indigenisation and black empowerment -- said he believes the country must own its vast natural resources.
"As Zimbabweans we are owners of our natural resources and therefore our land belongs to us," he said to loud cheers.
"We believe in Africa for Africans, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans."
He asked his supporters to come out in droves to win back the constituency in an area held by the MDC.
"We slept too much in 2008, we must win back this constituency this time around," he said.
"Let us sing the song of victory, we must sing that we will win. Backwards never, forward with winning elections, down with the MDC."
Mugabe is expected to address 10 rallies before the polls, in contrast to the dozen rallies he held during the 2008 elections.
The determination of Mugabe's inner circle to hang on to power was in evidence in remarks by his wife Grace, who insisted his opponents would not be occupying the president's residence anytime soon.
"Those who dream that Mugabe must go, they must keep on dreaming because this is not yet happening," said Grace Mugabe, 48, dismissing her husband's arch-foe Tsvangirai as "ugly and cold-hearted."
Grace married Mugabe in 1996 following the death of his first wife, Sally, in 1992. She and Mugabe have three children together.
"There is nothing difficult as having the whole world against you, and you remain strong. President remain resolute, your wisdom comes from God," she added.