HARARE - When 100 young men stormed onto his property last week, Knox Solomon Danda, an opposition candidate for parliament in rural Zvimba, hid under a table with his wife and children.
He said he pulled the tablecloth low to the floor to better conceal their cowering shapes. His five-year-old daughter began to whimper. He held her close to muffle the sound.
"I don't know whether these men meant to kill us or simply scare us," he said.
The intruders pelted the house with bricks, and while Danda and his family escaped unhurt, he said two of his supporters were pummeled in an adjacent maize field. One suffered a gash to his ribs from an axe.
Election time has again come to Zimbabwe - expectant days of hope and suspense, but also of fear, with the lining up at the polls customarily preceded by what many people here describe as a campaign of state-supported intimidation and skulduggery.
Voters will go to the polls on Saturday, with President Robert Mugabe, the leader of a nation enduring catastrophic hardship, trying to retain the power.
Here in Harare, there is the usual speculation about the political winds. In what provinces is the president's party strong? Where is it weak? But the more frequent conjecture involves the mechanics of an outcome that is presumed to be rigged.
"Even if Mugabe only gets one vote, the tabulated results are in the box and he has won," said Andrew Moyse, who coordinates a project that monitors coverage in the Zimbabwe news media.
Echoing that sentiment, Noel Kututwa, the chairman of a coalition of civic groups dedicated to honest elections, said: "We will not have a free and fair election. There is desperation for change. But, in the end, I can't say that Mugabe won't win, because he probably will."
Mugabe, 84, a hero of the nation's liberation struggle and one of the last of Africa's ruthlessly autocratic "big men", is often imputed here with mythic cunning. Certainly, great advantages have accrued to his 28-year incumbency. The state controls radio, television and two daily newspapers. The reporting of events is biased towards Mugabe, extolling his courage and generosity while depicting his opponents as little more than footmen for the British, Zimbabwe's former colonial masters.
In a country suffering rampant hunger, the government bolsters its standing by distributing subsidised food, routinely favouring, critics allege, members of Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF. In a country enduring epic inflation of more than 100 000 percent, the campaigning president has been able to bestow tractors and plows on village chiefs whose gratitude is expected to be a reciprocal harvest of votes.
Then there are the brass tacks of the election. Groups like Kututwa's complain about an election commission dominated by Mugabe's cronies, rules that bar people from registering in cities where the president is less popular, a paucity of polling stations in those locations; and long outdated voting rolls that in the past have been accused of permitting guileful Zanu-PF advocates to cast ballots for the dead.
"There are many tricks to play; the illiterate stand in separate queues and we mark the votes for them," said Gift Mukumira, a former Zanu-PF youth organiser who has become unhappy with Mugabe. He lives in Epworth, on Harare's outskirts. "Last time, our people were bussed from Mutoko and allowed to vote a second time in Epworth."
But for all of Mugabe's wily tactics, he is burdened by an economy that went into free fall in 2000 when agricultural land owned by whites was seized, an act that has reaped only disaster. About a quarter of Zimbabwe's 13 million people have fled the country; 80 percent to 90 percent of those left are unemployed. The president now acknowledges his people's hardship but defends his policies as post-colonial justice, insisting that "national sovereignty" is at stake.
His two leading opponents argue that the confiscated farms have not been used to benefit the poor but rather to reward Mugabe's friends.
One of those candidates is Morgan Tsvangirai, who received 42 percent of the official vote in 2002 and contends that the election was stolen from him. Last March, Tsvangirai was so badly beaten by the police at a prayer rally that his bruised head resembled a melon that had been rolled down a hillside. This time, he has campaigned largely without interference, speaking to huge crowds.
"We expect the enemies of justice to engage in every trick in the book," Tsvangirai said on Sunday.
Members of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, allege that nine million ballots have been printed, even though there are only 5,9 million voters. They suggest the surplus will end up marked for Mugabe.
The other main challenger is Simba Makoni, a former finance minister and longtime Zanu-PF stalwart. He has the vocal support of a few other well-known party dissidents and perhaps the furtive backing of many more. It is a common parlour game in Harare to speculate about which of Mugabe's professed loyalists now secretly support Makoni - and whether that clandestine support might pry apart the party's vote-rigging apparatus.
By law, the votes are supposed to be counted at each polling place, with the totals publicly posted. If that is widely done, groups like Kututwa's Zimbabwe Election Support Network can use sampling techniques to assess the accuracy of the national results. "But this posting of the vote has never happened," Kututwa said.
International election observers are being restricted to a select group of guests from non-European nations such as China, Iran, Libya, Russia and Venezuela. Also present is a delegation from the Southern Africa Development Community. In recent elections, as Mugabe's opponents cried foul, observers from SADC pronounced the voting process fair.
This past year, a delegation led by President Thabo Mbeki tried to get the political rivals in Zimbabwe to agree on new election procedures. Though several accommodations were reached, Mugabe has reneged on a majority of them. Most recently, he overturned a procedure barring policemen from inside polling stations.
Whatever the vote count, the outcome is likely to be vigorously disputed.
The army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga has been quoted as saying that the army will not abide by a result that favours "sellouts and agents of the West". He and others cast the election as a continuation of the liberation struggle.
Last week, the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organisation that seeks to prevent deadly conflicts, issued a report that called the situation "volatile, with a high risk of violence". It asked the African Union to prepare to broker a power-sharing deal that might save Zimbabwe from the mortal consequences of a wildly disputed election. - New York Times