Under a joyless midmorning sky today, Batsirayi Nyamugamu told war stories while he waited to cast the most important ballot of his life.

When this former British colony was fighting for independence 23 years ago, Nyamugamu barreled over a land mine that the white minority government had intended for his father, a school headmaster who shuttled food, supplies and messages to rebel soldiers led by Robert Mugabe. The 12-year-old Nyamugamu awoke from a coma three months later to discover his mother was dead and his father jailed.

"See this here," he said, pointing to a scar that runs practically the length of his forehead. "Everybody paid a price for that war, and so when somebody gets up and starts telling me about what they did 20 or 30 years ago it really hacks me off. This election is not about our past, it's about the future. . . . I have a daughter to think about now, and this vote is about the Zimbabwe I want her to live in."

Educated and disillusioned, the 35-year-old marketing manager represents what is at once President Mugabe's greatest triumph and the greatest threat to his 20 years of virtually unchallenged rule of this southern African country. Voters who turned out today for the first of two days of parliamentary elections are as preoccupied with the governing party's corruption and mishandling of the economy as they are with its role in the independence struggle. Despite Mugabe's appeals to nationalistic pride, and his governing party's repeated efforts during the campaign to rally supporters with racially charged rhetoric and imagery from the war against colonialism, Zimbabwe increasingly appears ready for a change. According to a poll released last week, the newly formed opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is poised to capture 70 of the 120 legislative seats up for grabs; another 30 seats are appointed by Mugabe. The governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) now holds 147 of the 150 seats.

The 76-year-old Mugabe doesn't have to run for reelection until 2002, but the stiff competition his party now faces is a clear indication of voters' growing dissatisfaction with the aging warrior who led them to victory in 1980 over the former British colony known as Rhodesia.

The four months of political violence that led up to this week's elections are symbolic of sub-Saharan Africa's growing pains as a generation comes of age with fading memories of the continent's painful past and turns toward its uncertain future. Across Africa, the prosaic issues of livability--jobs, health care and the quality of schools--are beginning to rival and even eclipse liberation as priorities.

"The war is over," said Peter Mita, 40, as he emerged from a voting booth. "Our problem is no longer the British. It is our leaders' failed economic policies."

Following the campaign violence in which nearly 1,600 white-owned farms were seized by independence war veterans and at least 32 people--most of them supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change--were killed, voter turnout was heavy, but polling was largely peaceful.

"This is the most I've ever seen, in terms of numbers of voters on the first day, which is usually light," said Stanley Gumbodete, 32, a schoolteacher in Machete, a village about 60 miles east of Harare, the capital.

Only weeks ago, Gumbodete was pulled from his car and beaten by a dozen thugs who he said were supporters of Mugabe's party. He spent days in the hospital but, despite his fear of reprisals, joined his neighbors today outside the small schoolhouse on a narrow, dirt road.

"My people needed my vote," he said. "We need change. The government has ignored people's social welfare, their health and the economy, and they are beating them, raping women, torturing us instead."

Gumbodete said that when he was a child, the rebels would use him and his friends to courier messages because the Rhodesian forces did not suspect them.

"The war was terrible," he said. "I saw people killed and raped and beaten. But now it's ZANU that is doing the same thing, and that's not the country that I want my two sons to grow up in."

Mugabe's repeated encouragement--and many believe orchestration--of the violence and farm seizures has been widely criticized by foreign donors and the international community. His once impenetrable popularity here has waned as allegations of corruption within his cabinet have increased, inflation has soared to 60 percent and unemployment to 50 percent, and a fuel shortage has forced motorists and truck drivers to wait in line for hours.

The independent media and voters have heavily criticized his decision two years ago to send 11,000 troops to neighboring Congo to support President Laurent Kabila's efforts to defend his government from rebels. With no Cold War, and the cash that flowed into Africa from the Soviet Bloc, the Marxist ideology that influenced Mugabe and many other African leaders holds little sway with voters, particularly young ones. Nearly one-third of Zimbabwe's voters were born after independence.

Since voters handed Mugabe his first electoral defeat in February, rejecting his proposals to consolidate his constitutional authority even more, he has repeatedly characterized white farmers--who continue to own a disproportionate share of arable land, even though they account for less than 1 percent of the population of 12.5 million--as "enemies of the state."

He has portrayed the Movement for Democratic Change as "stooges" of foreigners and British imperialism. Campaign ads have urged voters not to "turn back the clock" and broadcast images of Rhodesian soldiers dragging the corpses of black rebels through the mud and bush.

"We ushered democratic change into this country," Mugabe told nearly 10,000 supporters at a political rally last week in Chinhoyi, 75 miles northwest of Harare. "My war veterans have done the right thing. It is a continuation of the liberation struggle."

Such rhetoric has not found the audience it once did. Mugabe's Marxist policies in the first decade of his rule greatly expanded the colonial regime's educational and health care infrastructure, creating a middle class that is among Africa's most educated and increasingly willing to stand up to him.

"People know that the land issue needs to be addressed . . . but we want it to be addressed properly, not through violence and intimidation and the loss of international goodwill," Gumbodete said. "The whites are no longer what ails this country. Our leadership sickens us."

The Movement for Democratic Change would have to win 76 of the 120 available seats for a parliamentary majority because the constitution enables Mugabe to appoint 30 lawmakers, providing his party with a built-in and substantial advantage. Last week's polls combined with today's heavy turnout--the heaviest since 1980, election officials said--indicates that the opposition has the momentum.

But concerns of vote-rigging are widespread and already, Morgan Tsvangirai, the labor leader who heads the Movement for Democratic Change, has said that his party will protest the validity of the elections if it does not win a majority.

"The die is cast," he said in a statement today. "This is the day we move forward as a country or backwards into an economic abyss."

Zimbabwe Election at a Glance

Zimbabweans went to the polls yesterday and today to elect a new parliament. But for most voters, the election is about whether longtime autocratic President Robert Mugabe will be forced to loosen his 20-year grip on power. As head of state, Mugabe is not on the ballot now, and his six-year term runs until 2002. But for the first time since independence, the opposition has a chance to win a sizable number of seats.

The government

Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), led by Mugabe. The ruling party is urban-based and backed by the older establishment voters who still feel indebted to Mugabe for his role in the struggle against white rule in the 1970s. Party holds 147 seats.

The opposition

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); the party appeals to younger voters who feel that Mugabe's rule will not realize the nation's full economic potential. It was established last year. There are several other opposition parties, one of which holds three seats in parliament.

At stake

120 seats in the House of Assembly.

The house has 150 seats, 12 of which are appointed by the president; 10 seats are reserved for traditional chiefs and eight are filled by provincial governors.

76 seats required to win a majority in the house.

The campaign

The campaign has been marked by violence and intimidation by the ruling party, particularly war veterans supporting Mugabe, and at least 30 people have died.

In the spring, militants began to occupy white-owned farms. Mugabe has promised to redistribute white-owned farms to landless blacks after the election.

Opposition leader Tsvangirai has said his party would win a majority, but that Mugabe was trying to rig the vote.

Some of Mugabe's supporters have threatened to take up arms if ZANU-PF loses the election.

The process

Number of registered voters: 5.1 million.

About 300 monitors from the Commonwealth, European Union, African organizations and Japan will observe the voting. Mugabe has excluded 200 other observers, including some from the United States and Britain.

There has been confusion over the location of many polling places and over accreditation of local polling observers.

The country

Population: 12.5 million;

44 percent under age 15; 3 percent older than 65

Income per person: $720

Life expectancy: 40 years

HIV infection rate: 25.84, one of the highest in Africa.

Economy: In the past year, 60 percent inflation and 50 percent unemploy-ment have plagued the country. Hard currency reserves, dependent on tobacco sales and tourism, have dwindled, and gasoline is in short supply. Mugabe's virulent criticism of Britain, the former colonial ruler, has dried up loans and invest-ments. Zimbabwe's involvement in a war in Congo has also hurt the economy.

SOURCES: Wire services and staff reports, International Foundation for Electoral Systems