Robert Mugabe looks like he can smell victory again. Campaigning before Wednesday’s election, Zimbabwe’s strongman president is on vintage form as he rages against imperialism, homosexuals, and his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, whom he variously depicts as a frog, a python and a dog.
“Tsvangirai is a coward, more like my late Uncle Shoniwa’s dog which used to run away from game when we went hunting,” he says during a two-hour address at the National Sports stadium outside the capital, Harare.
Yet in Harare itself, where Mr Mugabe has always polled poorly, a sense of weary inevitability hangs thick. Mr Mugabe was widely seen to have stolen the past two elections, which both descended into brutal violence.
Mr Tsvangirai, who is also the country’s Prime Minister, has warned that the country cannot afford a repeat performance. “Mugabe stole an election in 2002, he stole the election in 2008. This time we want to tell him that he will not steal again,” he told supporters on Sunday in Chinhoyi, some 60 miles north-west of Harare.
But the odds seem stacked against 61-year-old Tsvangirai replacing the 89-year-old Mugabe, who has held power continuously in the 33 years since Zimbabwe secured its independence from Britain. While there are few signs yet of the violent rampages by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party activists, other forms of vote-rigging tricks are rife: the media is tightly controlled, opposition candidates have been harassed, and fake voter registrations are widespread.
The current absence of violence is partly thanks to Mr Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change being co-opted into the political establishment. Since the chaotic 2008 elections, when Mr Tsvangirai agreed to an awkward unity government, key economic reforms have been rolled out.
Inflation, measuring 231,000,000 per cent in 2008, was at 2.2 per cent in May, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, mainly due to Zimbabwe adopting the American dollar. The economy, which halved in size in the decade leading to 2009, grew by 10.6 per cent in 2011, though it slowed to 4.4 per cent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is still estimated at 80 per cent and millions are still dependent on food aid.
In 2008, Zimbabwe suffered mass emigration, a cholera epidemic, and the schooling system was facing total collapse, with just 26 teaching days in that year. Now the country has reopened hospitals and clinics, beaten the cholera, brought clean water to people in cities, and restored the teaching year.
The coalition also ushered in a new constitution earlier this year, a pre-condition for the US and EU to lift its myriad sanctions against the country.
Despite these improvements, Mr Tsvangirai has come under fire from many, including his own supporters. His government has failed to reform the country’s bastions of real power - the military, the police and the courts – where Zanu-PF still retains control.
There is widespread anger that digging rights to recently discovery diamond mines have been sold to Chinese and Russian corporations in shady deals. And growth remains delicate, with employment still elusive for many Zimbabweans. The pace of change has been too slow for many, who say Mr Tsvangirai has tarnished his reputation by co-operating with Mr Mugabe.
Mr Tsvangirai’s character has also been questioned, thanks to personal scandals. Last September, he was forced to cancel his high-profile wedding because a judge ruled he was married to another woman. Mr Tsvangirai and Elizabeth Macheka, 35, went ahead with a lavish ceremony but did not sign the legal marriage register after a judge warned that it could lead to bigamy charges.
But for Mr Tsvangirai and his supporters, vote rigging is their biggest obstacle. He has accused the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission of printing eight million ballots, instead of 6.2 million, the number of registered voters. On Sunday, Mr Tsvangirai’s poll organiser was arrested after he reported ballots marked for his candidate had been found in a dustbin.
David Coltart, the outgoing Education Minister, says uncorrupted poll figures would put Mr Tsvangirai at about 58 per cent and Mr Mugabe at about 32 per cent. “Victory would never be in doubt [if] the election were really free from fear, but it has never really been from the very beginning,” he says.
“They are falsifying electoral rolls, which means they can justify stuffing the ballot box. This has been brazen.” The risk of another flawed election, Mr Coltart warns, could be disastrous. “Sham polls would likely reverse all the progress we have made,” he says.