HARARE, Zimbabwe – At the age of 89 President Robert Mugabe is on the campaign trail, seeking to extend his grip on Zimbabwe in an election next week that observers fear will be marred by fraud. But the opposition is gambling that there is enough discontent to unseat the wily political survivor, who has been in power for 33 years.
In the run-up to voting on July 31, rival supporters are seen wearing their party symbols in township bars and markets without the aggression and violence that has marked previous polls.
"There is more tolerance this time," Clive Nyakurerwa, a 30-year-old self-employed plumber, said.
But supporters of the challenger, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and pro-democracy groups warn it will be a mistake for the vote to be seen as credible just because there is little violence.
"There has been no transparency in the voters roll, no free media access and no freedom for political meetings. As we speak, our organizers are being harassed by police," said Martin Jambaya, a Tsvangirai party official from the northeastern Kotwa district.
It appears to be a tight race and Zimbabweans are hotly debating how this nation of 13 million will vote.
"Will it be for a new broom that citizens can put hopes and expectations on? And one that they can remove if it doesn't live up to those hopes?" asked civic activist Thabani Nyoni. "There has never been so clear a choice before."
Tsvangirai on Friday said he is deeply disturbed by chaotic preparations for the elections. He said the state election commission appeared not to be ready for Wednesday's vote.
"The credibility of this election is at risk. The chaos will lead to inconclusive and contested results" Tsvangirai said.
Tsvangirai sharply criticized Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African chairperson of the continent-wide African Union organization, for declaring that that AU observers are "satisfied" with arrangements so far.
Mugabe led the nation to independence in 1980 after a bitter war against the white minority Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. An avowed Marxist, Mugabe took the reins of one of Africa's most prosperous economies and — after regional leaders at the time urged him not to destroy it — he pledged racial reconciliation, tolerance and sound management.
His lengthy rule, however, has become authoritarian, scarred by the brutal use of force to crush an armed uprising in the 1980s in which thousands of civilians were killed. Mugabe, and his ZANU-PF party, have stayed in power through elections every five years, bolstered by his sweeping control of the police and military, which are led by comrades who fought in the bush war against Rhodesia.
Now Mugabe is opposed by Tsvangirai, 61, a former labor leader, and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Despite widespread support, Tsvangirai has lost every election since 2000 amid evidence of violence and vote rigging. Mugabe's victory in 2008 was so disputed and violent, regional leaders forced him to form a shaky coalition with Tsvangirai.
For years Mugabe's government has been restricted by sanctions but now it appears the international community wants to re-engage with Harare, say analysts.
"The outside world wants to see a country that can manage its own electoral processes and inspire confidence. They want to work with a government that is freely elected and accountable," said Nyoni, a senior research official with the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an alliance of 70 independent rights, civic and church groups.
Mugabe, increasingly frail, scheduled 10 campaign rallies up to voting day. Tsvangirai has been on a punishing campaign tour almost every day since July 4 when the nation's highest court ordered the poll to go ahead at the end of July.
Harare voter Regina Musa, 71, said Mugabe led a heroic fight for an end to white rule and was seen as the savior of the black majority, drawing massive crowds to his first public appearances then. But in this election, she said, his ZANU-PF party had to resort to drawing crowds by closing shops and markets to force people to attend his rallies.
She said those who attend get free T-shirts, baseball caps and food but have little enthusiasm for Mugabe's long "lectures" on his party's history of four decades and its liberation credentials instead of anything new to offer.
"Our lives have got worse. Schools and clinics have gone down, and there is hunger," said Musa, a market stall holder. "I can't manage to get enough food for my family."
About 9,600 voting stations are to be set up across the country for the poll, monitored by some 600 African observers. Mugabe has refused to allow Western observer missions into the country, accusing Britain, the former colonial power, and the United States of backing and funding Tsvangirai as part of their "regime change agenda."
Mugabe blames Western economic sanctions — travel and banking bans on him and his party leaders to protest a decade of human and democratic rights violations — for collapsing the economy.
Young voters in the impoverished western Harare township of Highfield, however, say they have tired of political rhetoric and want jobs.
"We are looking for a better future. Since I was born, I have never enjoyed life," said Tarisai Chitanda, 22, unemployed and a member of the "born free" generation that has grown up since independence.
But Edmore Sibubi, 30, said he supported Mugabe's black empowerment program that gave many young people dreams of sharing the nation's abundant mineral wealth, natural resources and potential business assets.
Critics of black empowerment and Mugabe's often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms since 2000 insist that few have benefited except an elite of Mugabe party loyalists. Many prime farms still lie idle and this former regional breadbasket now imports most of its food and more than 1 million people rely on foreign-donated food handouts.
Zimbabwe's state broadcasting monopoly controlled by Mugabe has aired his 90-minute rallies live on its four radio stations and main television channel. The nightly news on one of those days allotted Tsvangirai just three minutes, mostly of derogatory comments about him.
In another development, mobile phone companies have been ordered by the state telecommunications body to block bulk text messages that have been successfully used by Tsvangirai's party and independent civic groups to circulate election information, said Kubatana, a group of civic organizations.
This new ban on mass cell phone messages is seen as a way that ZANU-PF is trying to stop the effectiveness of Tsvangirai's campaigning through social media.
Nyoni, the civic activist, said it is feared voting will be chaotic but not necessarily to Mugabe's advantage saying inducements or threats and long voting lines will likely anger voters.
"You have the land but you don't have the economy," he said. "People are connecting to this and they don't want to be told what to do when they get into that polling booth."