Opponents See End to Mugabe Era

Mood in Zimbabwe Is Optimistic for Today's Vote, Despite Prospect of Government Vote-Rigging

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008; Page A08

HARARE, Zimbabwe, March 28 -- On the eve of Saturday's elections, many Zimbabweans say they have come to believe something that was once all but unthinkable: After nearly 28 years of unbroken power, President Robert Mugabe might lose.

Not just lose in the sense of receiving fewer votes than his opponent, which many Zimbabweans figure has happened before. They predict that the results could be so clear-cut, so overwhelming, that they will swamp even the extensive rigging mechanisms that Mugabe is widely presumed to command.

"The energy, the passion, the air of hope is absolutely amazing," said Trevor Ncube, publisher of two independent weekly newspapers here, among the scant remnants of the nation's once robust free press. "We might just have reached the true tipping point."

The idea has taken on such force -- despite the fact that Mugabe controls nearly every lever of power -- as to approach a national mania. The most skeptical analysts regard this enthusiasm as barely rational.

A barber found himself spontaneously singing an opposition song. An upscale businesswoman bought herself two bottles of champagne. Thousands of opposition supporters at a boisterous rally in a former Mugabe stronghold boldly waved red cards, imitating the gestures of soccer referees ejecting ill-behaved players from games.

Fueling this defiant mood is the world's worst inflation, at 100,000 percent, and deepening desperation. Prices go up every day, sometimes more than once a day, causing an erosion of purchasing power so debilitating that many of those still employed have stopped cashing their paychecks. Hospitals lack drugs. Schools lack teachers. Store shelves are, at best, half-empty. Hunger has become endemic.

"Right now, I don't even remember the last time I had bread with butter. Long time," said Loice Matavire, 62, who lives in Harare.

Another reason for optimism that this election may be different is the decline in political violence. Attacks on opposition figures were frequent during the 2002 campaign, but they eased off in the 2005 parliamentary vote and are down decisively this year. Zimbabweans credit the shift to pressure from southern African regional leaders, who reacted with alarm last year when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of others were arrested and beaten severely by police.

The political playing field remains sharply tilted toward Mugabe, who controls nearly every source of information available to Zimbabweans, along with the police force, the military and a notorious intelligence service. But attacks have become rare enough that fear is lifting. Tsvangirai's picture, meanwhile, has become omnipresent, on wall posters, newspaper ads and T-shirts.

Matavire arrived at the Tsvangirai rally Friday wearing a full complement of opposition party garb -- T-shirt, skirt and head wrap -- something she never would have dared in previous elections. "I'm not even scared, because I've declared that whatever comes will just happen," she said.

At the rally, Tsvangirai bluntly warned the crowd: "Tomorrow's election I know is already won. What is left is to protect our votes."

Tsvangirai urged supporters to cast their ballots, head home for a bath and a meal, then return to polling places in the evening to monitor the counting.

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