Zimbabwe's former president, Robert Mugabe, speaks with his wife, Grace Mugabe, during a news conference Sunday held at his residence in Harare. (Jekesain Jikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of Zimbabwe’s first elections without him, Robert Mugabe, now 94 and in diminishing health, held an extraordinary off-the-cuff news conference at his palatial residence Sunday, denouncing the political party he helped found and all but announcing that he would vote for the opposition party he spent years suppressing. 

“I must say very clearly that I cannot vote for those who have tormented me,” Mugabe said of the current leaders of ZANU-PF, the party he led from Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 until former allies forced him to resign in November. He later implied that he would vote for Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, the only viable alternative.

“What is left? It is only Chamisa,” he said, with a wave of the hand.  

Mugabe’s comments marked his first intervention in this tightly contested election. After presiding over a precipitous economic decline and allowing his unpopular wife, Grace Mugabe, to position herself as his possible successor, he had lost much of his clout within ZANU-PF. And his comments have probably come too late to have much effect on the vote.

But the nearly two hours he spent talking were a last stand of sorts for the ailing founding father of Zimbabwe. He devoted most of his speech to criticizing Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took the reins after the bloodless coup in November, which was supported by the military. Monday’s vote pits Mnangagwa, 75, against Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor who would become Africa’s youngest head of state.

“Thrust away the hypocrites,” said Mugabe, who sat slouched in a green armchair. “Let tomorrow be the voice of the people saying we shall never again experience a period where the army is used to thrust one person into power.”

He minced no words in calling November’s events a coup and lamented that regional governments that had once backed him, such as South Africa, have so quickly started working with Mnangagwa.

“Our neighbors have been fooled into believing that it was not a coup d’état. Nonsense, it was a coup d’état,” said Mugabe.

Mugabe and his wife have been reclusive since November, mostly remaining in their mansion outside the capital, Harare, known as Blue Roof.

Grace Mugabe was present at the news conference, shielding herself from the midday sun with an umbrella emblazoned with a photo of her wedding day. She occasionally butted in, telling her husband to sit up straight and speak up.

When Robert Mugabe brought up the issue of his pension, Grace Mugabe stepped forward to clarify the amount: $467,000. 

“Can you imagine,” she said, indignant that it’s not larger. The average Zimbabwean makes less than $2,000 per year.

“There is no place for Grace Mugabe in my government,” Chamisa said Sunday, apparently seeing a ploy for a role for her should he win the election. Chamisa’s news conference on Sunday was totally overshadowed by Mugabe’s.

“Deal with your old man,” said Chamisa.

Robert Mugabe said the notion that he had been planning to hand over power to his wife was “utter nonsense.” He said he had intended to resign in December and had spoken to former defense minister Sydney Sekeramayi about being his replacement. 

Mugabe’s criticism of military intervention in politics is one that most Zimbabweans would find more than a little sanctimonious. The military and ZANU-PF have always been closely linked, with generals often becoming ministers and a heavy army presence deployed at polling booths in previous elections.

In 2008, Mugabe lost the first round of an election to the MDC candidate. In the weeks between then and the runoff, more than 200 opposition supporters were killed, and thousands, including journalists, were arrested. 

Recent polls have indicated that ZANU-PF and the MDC are neck and neck. Should neither side capture 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Sept. 8. MDC supporters and civil rights organizations have documented widespread intimidation and vote-buying, casting doubts on the credibility of the election.

Chamisa and Mnangagwa held their final rallies on Saturday, just over a mile from each other in Harare. There were tense standoffs between supporters who ran into one another afterward, but no violence was reported.

Both candidates have promised to open Zimbabwe up to foreign investment after years of isolation and sanctions that have contributed to crippling the economy, but an election broadly perceived as unfair would jeopardize readmission into the international community.

International election observers are in Zimbabwe for the first time since 2000, when Mugabe expelled them over perceived interference.

“So the election tomorrow, I ask: Is it to bring democracy? To bring constitutionality? To bring freedom? Or shall we see the return, a return of the same rule we have experienced since November?” Mugabe said. “ Let us all pray that tomorrow brings us good news.”