The gaunt face and high-pitched, deliberate voice on Zimbabwe's state-run television network late last week were eerily familiar. So was the message: that the country was heading down the road to communism, that "standards" were deteriorating, that the white minority needed to stick together to survive.
After five years as a virtual nonperson in Zimbabwe, Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of the land once known as Rhodesia, has reemerged publicly as a candidate and symbol in the whites-only poll that is a curious sideshow to the country's first national election since gaining black majority rule in 1980.
About 32,500 white voters -- slightly more than 1 percent of Zimbabwe's electorate -- will choose 20 of the 100 members of Parliament on June 27, leaving 2.9 million blacks to choose the other 80 the following week.
The huge imbalance between the two polls was the result of a compromise forged by negotiators in 1979 to ease the transition from white rule to black. They sought to assure the white minority here that it would not be swallowed up and rendered powerless by the black majority, which now makes up almost 99 percent of the population. The constitutional provision guaranteeing a share of power for whites is likely to be scrapped two years from now -- that is, unless Smith has his way.
This campaign is the last hurrah for the 66-year-old Smith, who for 14 years presided over a white-minority government in defiance of international law, locked up hundreds of opponents -- including the present prime minister, Robert Mugabe -- and conducted a seven-year war of attrition against black guerrillas.
But the campaign is also an opportunity for the country's remaining whites to send an important message to Mugabe's government. Their choice is between the conciliatory stance taken by a loose coalition of white independents, or the harder edged confrontation tactics practiced by Smith and his supporters.
At independence in 1980, Smith controlled all 20 white parliamentary seats. He started out by holding regular meetings with Mugabe, but the two soon fell out over a number of issues, including Mugabe's advocacy of a one-party state. Relations have grown increasingly acrimonious ever since.
Seven independent members of Parliament broke with Smith three years ago, and they have been gaining support since. They have won the last three legislative by-elections and now hold 11 of the 20 white seats.
"The road on which Ian Smith was proceeding was the wrong road," said William Irvine in explaining the split. Irvine once sat in Smith's cabinet but now leads the independents. "The daily confrontation with Mugabe wasn't doing the whites any good. We needed to have a working relationship with the government."
Smith contends that the independents are opportunists who "fell into the classical political trap that was laid for them" by Mugabe: "Divide and rule. Instead of white people speaking with one voice, they've been played one against the other to the detriment of the white people."
The white population here has steadily diminished since independence and now amounts to about 100,000 -- less than half its preindependence total. Many of those who have stayed appear to have made their peace with black rule, although most are clearly uncomfortable with the Mugabe government's socialist rhetoric and its tendency to sneer at the profit motive. Less than half of the eligible white population has bothered to register to vote, a fact attributed by some analysts to apathy and by others to acquiescence in the status quo.
Still, the election is a chance to gauge Smith's ability to appeal to the white constituency he once held in the palm of his hand. Few are willing to dismiss his chances.
"He's got a tremendous personal following, even among people who have no use for his party," said Chris Andersen, a white independent who is public service minister in Mugabe's Cabinet. "A lot of people will say 'I'm just voting for Smith, not his party,' " Andersen said.
Smith claims he has a lot of hidden support among whites who are afraid to speak out or even attend public meetings on his behalf. "A lot of businessmen contribute to my campaign, but only in cash," he said in a recent interview. "They do business with government and they can't afford to be seen supporting me," he said.
But black officials tend to treat the white contest as an anachronism of little import. Whoever wins, they say, they expect to be able to muster the 70 parliamentary votes that will be sufficient to eliminate the white election in 1987, when a provision requiring a unanimous vote for elimination expires.