BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- Two weeks ago, Mike Sibanda strode down the dingy streets of Zimbabwe's second-largest city with a swagger, chest out, shoulders rolling, a broad, wise-guy smile on his face. The image exuded a single message: I'm nobody's fool.
So when the subject of Thursday's national election came up, Sibanda, 24 and long attracted to opposition politics, swiped his right hand in the air and said dismissively, "Ah, it's useless." That week, as opposition activists braved possible arrests by gathering for a nighttime rally at a suburban park near here, Sibanda gathered instead with friends to drink beer.
President Robert Mugabe, left, who pledged a "free and fair" vote, greets supporters at a rally in Harare, the capital.
But as the national parliamentary election has drawn nearer, his interest in voting against the ruling party of President Robert Mugabe -- in power since before Sibanda was born -- has returned. Sibanda has found his faith in democracy rekindled by what he calls growing tolerance of dissent and reduced threat of violence.
Among other tactics, Mugabe's camp still withholds food from villagers who support the opposition, human rights workers say. And dozens of people have been arrested for playing a role in candidate-voter meetings, hanging campaign signs and participating in other political activity.
But in the face of strong international pressure, Mugabe is trying to convince the world that he can stage a fair election, analysts here say. The violent tactics of recent elections, in which opposition supporters were beaten, tortured and even murdered, have declined, according to human rights workers. The government has also eased restrictions on access to airwaves, though they are still dominated by Mugabe's message that members of the opposition are traitors who want to reestablish Zimbabwe as a British colony.
With these small steps toward fairness, attendance at campaign rallies is at the highest level in the five-year history of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
"There's a possibility for them to win now. There's hope," said Sibanda, who joined throngs at a soccer stadium on Saturday to cheer the opposition. "There's no reason to be scared."
The turning point came when he saw a television advertisement for the opposition party. On the national network, usually reserved for ruling party propaganda and official government pronouncements, opposition activists were shown flashing the party's signature open-hand gesture.
The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai -- who was on trial and facing a death sentence on charges of treason six months ago but was acquitted -- was pictured in his trademark cowboy hat addressing cheering crowds. On the radio, the opposition can be heard spreading its slogan, "A New Zimbabwe, a New Beginning."
Up for grabs are 120 seats in a parliament representing all parts of this troubled southern African nation of 13 million people. Mugabe, whose term as president lasts until 2008, will appoint the remaining 30 members of the 150-seat body, making it difficult for the Movement for Democratic Change to gain outright control. It now has 51 seats.
Mugabe has vowed to have a "free and fair election." He has also called for voters to "bury the MDC," by giving the ruling party control of two-thirds of parliament, which would allow Mugabe to rewrite the constitution to further entrench his party in power.
Leaders of the opposition, meanwhile, say that if they could win more than half of the popular vote, it would undermine Mugabe's claims to credibility and hasten his ouster. Such a result, they say, would make it easier for Zimbabwe to attract foreign investment and end the economic decline, hunger and hyperinflation that have ravaged the country, once an oasis of prosperity in the region.
International human rights organizations and the European Union, which on Wednesday called the election "phony," say the outcome is unlikely to reflect the will of most Zimbabweans. Mugabe controls every daily newspaper, all broadcasters, thousands of patronage jobs, the electoral commission, the courts that would review accusations of rigging, and the dwindling food reserves for a populace on the brink of starvation.
Most international election observers have been kept away. And Mugabe increased the budget of his secret police force by six times in advance of the vote.