HARARE, Zimbabwe – The name of Zimbabwe's last white leader, who ceded power to Robert Mugabe 33 years ago and who died six years ago, has at last been removed from the nation's list of 5.7 million registered voters.
The state Electoral Commission says Ian Smith, the former prime minister, is among 345,000 dead people who have been struck from the official roll of voters ahead of crucial elections later in the year. As Zimbabwe celebrates its 33rd anniversary of independence on Thursday there is fresh focus on the poll, and a sense of optimism.
Mugabe has ruled this former British colony as president ever since he took over from Smith and the country changed its name from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe as it became independent. Mugabe now faces the biggest test of his political life.
Some Zimbabweans look to the polls with trepidation because of violence, intimidation and irregularities that have occurred in past elections. High among the problems in the 2008 election was the voters' lists that included Smith and his white justice minister who died in 1984 and who, during the war for independence, had signed the execution warrants of Mugabe's captured guerrillas.
The party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's main challenger, alleged the outdated lists were used in past vote rigging. Independent researchers say incorrect information on the voters' roll opens the way to change results by including non-qualifying voters in polling in hotly contested districts. There are still some problems with the lists: The independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network notes, for example, that it contains voters whose names have been duplicated in different voting districts and tens of thousands more who are living abroad and are disqualified from voting.
Eddie Cross, a lawmaker in Tsvangirai's party, said party officials are scheduled to meet with the state election body within days on the voters' lists and to question the role in election preparations of an Israeli computer technology company that specializes in population registration and election systems that has raised new fears of high-tech manipulation of results. Cross said the company Nikuv has expanded its facilities and increased its staff in the country and is believed to be working with military and intelligence chiefs loyal to Mugabe in Harare.
Cross said youth groups loyal to Mugabe still drag travelers from buses and demand to see Mugabe party membership cards to show their loyalty, a means of intimidation known as "shaking a box of matches without lighting one."
But he thinks that the vote this time around will be freer of violence and noted that regional leaders have vowed to closely monitor the situation for any poll violence.
"I think ordinary Zimbabweans won't be told which way to vote anymore and perpetrators are learning violence won't help," Cross said. "It is being neutralized."
The Crisis Coalition, an alliance of rights and pro-democracy groups, says Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has been trying to re-invent itself and its leader. Mugabe himself weighed in with repeated recent calls for peaceful campaigning.
"Even though some have characterized this as deception, Mugabe is no longer viewed as demonic as he was in 2008 following the violence," the coalition said. "He has seized every opportunity to put across his message, sparking debate on whether he has changed or not."
The group said the rebranding of Mugabe comes "in the wake of changing times and the new democratization wave in Africa."
Mugabe has called for the vote by the end of June. A referendum on a new constitution won an overwhelming 95 percent 'Yes' vote in March for the new charter that imposes two five-year terms on the office of president, strengthens human rights and calls for impartiality in the police and military. Human rights advocates hope it will help restore the rule of law and remove the impunity Mugabe militants have enjoyed since the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000, collapsing the agriculture-based economy.
Tsvangirai has proposed September as the earliest timeframe for elections. The 60-year-old former labor leader has already been on the campaign trail predicting own victory in the presidential race against an increasingly frail Mugabe, who is 89.
Tsvangirai is not without problems of his own. Since the death of his wife of three decades, Susan, in a car wreck in 2009 his name has been publicly linked to several women, one of whom he reportedly paid $300,000 dollars to settle a dispute over claims he had married her under African custom that does not require a church service. He lives in a $3 million private mansion in Harare and his critics say he has lacked the leadership to stop his aides from living lavish lifestyles in this deeply impoverished southern African nation.
That gap between the rich and poor is not lost on voter Anne Katsande, a home care nurse in Harare's impoverished Budiriro township suburb, who is disappointed that money wasn't directed toward her district's bankrupt and dilapidated state health facilities.
Still, she said that Tsvangirai's party offers change and an end to years of fear.