By ANGUS SHAW and GILLIAN GOTORA, Associated Press
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — At the age of 89 President Robert Mugabe is on the campaign trail, seeking to extend his grip on Zimbabwe in an election next week that observers fear will be marred by fraud. But the opposition is gambling that there is enough discontent to unseat the wily political survivor, who has been in power for 33 years.
In the run-up to voting on July 31, rival supporters are seen wearing their party symbols in township bars and markets without the aggression and violence that has marked previous polls.
"There is more tolerance this time," Clive Nyakurerwa, a 30-year-old self-employed plumber, said.
But supporters of the challenger, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and pro-democracy groups warn it will be a mistake for the vote to be seen as credible just because there is little violence.
"There has been no transparency in the voters roll, no free media access and no freedom for political meetings. As we speak, our organizers are being harassed by police," said Martin Jambaya, a Tsvangirai party official from the northeastern Kotwa district.
It appears to be a tight race and Zimbabweans are hotly debating how this nation of 13 million will vote.
"Will it be for a new broom that citizens can put hopes and expectations on? And one that they can remove if it doesn't live up to those hopes?" asked civic activist Thabani Nyoni. "There has never been so clear a choice before."
Tsvangirai on Friday said he is deeply disturbed by chaotic preparations for the elections. He said the state election commission appeared not to be ready for Wednesday's vote.
"The credibility of this election is at risk. The chaos will lead to inconclusive and contested results" Tsvangirai said.
Tsvangirai sharply criticized Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African chairperson of the continent-wide African Union organization, for declaring that that AU observers are "satisfied" with arrangements so far.
Mugabe led the nation to independence in 1980 after a bitter war against the white minority Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. An avowed Marxist, Mugabe took the reins of one of Africa's most prosperous economies and — after regional leaders at the time urged him not to destroy it — he pledged racial reconciliation, tolerance and sound management.
His lengthy rule, however, has become authoritarian, scarred by the brutal use of force to crush an armed uprising in the 1980s in which thousands of civilians were killed. Mugabe, and his ZANU-PF party, have stayed in power through elections every five years, bolstered by his sweeping control of the police and military, which are led by comrades who fought in the bush war against Rhodesia.
Now Mugabe is opposed by Tsvangirai, 61, a former labor leader, and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Despite widespread support, Tsvangirai has lost every election since 2000 amid evidence of violence and vote rigging. Mugabe's victory in 2008 was so disputed and violent, regional leaders forced him to form a shaky coalition with Tsvangirai.
For years Mugabe's government has been restricted by sanctions but now it appears the international community wants to re-engage with Harare, say analysts.
"The outside world wants to see a country that can manage its own electoral processes and inspire confidence. They want to work with a government that is freely elected and accountable," said Nyoni, a senior research official with the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an alliance of 70 independent rights, civic and church groups.
Mugabe, increasingly frail, scheduled 10 campaign rallies up to voting day. Tsvangirai has been on a punishing campaign tour almost every day since July 4 when the nation's highest court ordered the poll to go ahead at the end of July.
Harare voter Regina Musa, 71, said Mugabe led a heroic fight for an end to white rule and was seen as the savior of the black majority, drawing massive crowds to his first public appearances then. But in this election, she said, his ZANU-PF party had to resort to drawing crowds by closing shops and markets to force people to attend his rallies.
She said those who attend get free T-shirts, baseball caps and food but have little enthusiasm for Mugabe's long "lectures" on his party's history of four decades and its liberation credentials instead of anything new to offer.