President Robert Mugabe defiantly predicted "a mountainous victory" for his party Wednesday night as Zimbabweans prepared to cast their votes in an election that most observers believe will be rigged. During a frantic final day of campaigning ahead of Thursday's election both the ruling Zanu-PF Party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) made their final appeals to the electorate.
Mugabe told cheering supporters in the capital, Harare: "We have never been losers, because we have always been a party of the people."
This election campaign has been less scarred by violence than previous polls in Zimbabwe, but Mugabe's opponents claim the ruling party has denied food to opposition supporters and is preparing to fix Thursday's ballot.
Army officers have been placed in charge of polling stations; ballot boxes have been made of transparent plastic so opposition voters can be identified, and critics say the electoral roll is full of flaws.
From an audit of 10 percent of the roll, one human rights group, FreeZim, estimated that the voters' roll listed up to 1 million dead people, more than 300,000 duplicate names and 1 million people who no longer live at their registered address.
In an eve-of-election statement, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, repeated an accusation that opposition supporters were being denied access to state-controlled supplies of grain. "The legitimacy of this election must be once more called into question," he said. "To cynically use hunger as a weapon is to stab at the very heart of democracy."
Zimbabwe's economy is in crisis after years of misrule and corruption. The country's decline was accelerated by the chaotic seizure of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000.
At stake Thursday are 120 seats in Parliament. A further 30 are appointed by Mugabe, giving Zanu-PF a head start over the opposition. The MDC won 57 seats in the last general election in 2000, despite intimidation of its officials and supporters, as well as vote rigging. It has since lost six seats in by-elections. Archbishop Ncube, MDC secretary-general and M.P. for Bulawayo North-east, said the party's priority was to encourage a high turnout. He told the Guardian: "If people vote in large numbers, to the last man and woman, against Zanu-PF, then it will offset the rigging that will undoubtedly take place."
The opposition complained that it was largely denied access to state media. During the campaigning, Zimbabwe's state radio, the main source of news for 60 percent of the population, described the opposition in news bulletins as the "British-run MDC." Mugabe has sought to portray the campaign as a personal struggle against Tony Blair, claiming that the British prime minister is the puppet-master of the MDC. One of Zanu-PF's campaign slogans is "Bury Blair."
Ncube said: "We were denied fair access to the state media, which remained overtly hostile. We had to campaign door to door, person to person. Our supporters have shown resilience, courage and conviction. But this cannot in any way be called a reasonably democratic election."
The MDC says a decrease in violence has allowed it to campaign across the country, reaching parts of Zimbabwe once thought of as "no-go areas" for the opposition.
All nonresident Zimbabweans have been barred from voting in the election. This has disenfranchised an estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans -- more than a quarter of the country's population. Most left because of Zimbabwe's economic collapse and political repression, and would be expected to vote for the MDC.
Wednesday, Zimbabweans working or on holiday in South Africa boarded the Harare bus at Pretoria bus station, determined to exercise their right to vote. "It is imperative that we vote," said one man, herding his children into the bus queue. "Remember the American elections between Bush and Gore? It came down to just a handful of votes. I want to make certain my vote is counted."
Another passenger, Idah Mandaza, 55, said: "I know all about the cheating and the rigging. I know all about intimidation and violence. I know I will have to stand in a queue for hours. But I am determined to vote."
A fresh allegation of "dirty tricks" emerged Wednesday night. According to the Zimbabwe-based activist group Zvakwana, the ruling party has forged leaflets purporting to be from the MDC, instructing people to boycott the election.