JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Calling his political opponents murderers and thieves, President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe is spending his final days on the campaign trail vowing never to let the opposition rule the country.
After 22 years in power, Mugabe, 78, is fighting for his political life in this weekend's presidential election. His challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai (CHAN-ger-I), a former labor leader, represents a coalition of unemployed youths, business owners and white farmers seeking an end to the corruption and economic decline that have come to define their southern African nation.
Zimbabwe voters will go to the polls tomorrow and Sunday amid concern that Mugabe is seeking to defeat Tsvangirai at any cost.
"This fist is 78 years old and has 78 horsepower that could send Mr. Tsvangirai to the ground if we were to get into the ring," Mugabe said at a campaign rally.
More than 100 people have been killed and thousands injured in political attacks, most of which were conducted by Mugabe's ruling party, according to Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum. The U.S. State Department's annual human rights reports released this week condemned Zimbabwe's "government-sanctioned campaign of violence directed towards supporters and potential supporters of the opposition."
Election officials have reduced the number of polling places in the cities, where Tsvangirai has the most support, and added more in rural areas, where Mugabe's ruling party is traditionally strongest. The president has banned Zimbabweans living abroad from voting, despite the country's Supreme Court striking down a similar measure earlier this year.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change warns that the limited number of urban polling stations will create long lines, discouraging people from casting their vote. More than 5.6 million people are expected to vote this weekend to choose a president for a six-year term.
Election officials have denied accreditation to most independent poll observers, choosing instead to use thousands of government employees to monitor the counting of ballots.
"The electoral process has been blatantly and outrageously distorted in favor of the ruling party," said Tsvangirai, 49, whose party emerged as the country's first major opposition force after doing well in parliamentary elections two years ago. "The ruling party has crafted and implemented every imaginable trick to assist its fortunes in this election."
The government, however, dismissed suggestions that the ruling party would rig the elections, saying Zimbabwe's electoral system is impeccable. "Our system is second to none in Africa," the National Election Directorate Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede said at a news conference this week.
Much more is at stake in this election than the political careers of the two candidates. The next president will have to govern a country with staggering problems. The economy suffers from 65 percent unemployment, inflation of more than 100 percent a year, and widespread shortages of basic food.
A nationwide drought has killed much of this year's maize crops. The country depends on thousands of tons of food aid to get by. More than one-third of the nation's adult population is infected with HIV or AIDS, creating an estimated 900,000 orphans since the late 1980s.
The election's effects could be felt throughout southern Africa. If Tsvangirai wins, Zimbabwe could have the good-will of the international community. But a Mugabe victory probably would be viewed as the product of a rigged election and could deepen Zimbabwe's economic crisis.
"If there is an economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, it will have serious consequences for the entire region," said Richard Cornwell, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. Refugees could try to enter South Africa, he said, and neighboring economies that depend on Zimbabwe for trade would suffer.
The United States and Europe see the elections as a test for Africa's relationship with the developed world, Cornwell said. African leaders have launched an ambitious economic recovery program to promote democracy and the rule of law. In return, African states want Western nations to help finance the continent's economic development.
But Zimbabwe threatens to derail the program because African nations have been reluctant to criticize the country's human rights abuses, Cornwell said.
`They will vote for answers'
Tsvangirai has presented himself as the only candidate able to solve Zimbabwe's problems.
`The people will vote for change," Tsvangirai said yesterday in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "They will vote for answers to the burning issues of the day. These are starvation and massive food shortages, the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, joblessness, and the ever-increasing prices of foodstuffs and other basic commodities."
Addressing the enemy
Mugabe has directed his campaign not only against Tsvangirai but also against a long list of enemies that he says are trying to create a new era of colonialism - enemies that allegedly include gays, white farmers and the West.
"Anyone who is gay is a mad person and if we get to know, we charge them and they will go to prison," the state-run Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe saying at a campaign rally.
He reserved his harshest words for Britain, saying the former colonial power continued to meddle in the country's affairs and was propping up Tsvangirai as a political candidate. As the colonial power, Britain had no right to criticize him for failing to uphold democracy in Zimbabwe, he said.
"When did they ever have democracy here? So we are not learners of democracy but teachers of democracy," he said.