Opposition leader vows to challenge a rigged poll

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They were young, black and very excited. "Viva! viva!" they cried in the powerful victory chant of Africa, arms punching the air, glistening in the sweltering sun.

Pouring out of the factories in Workington, Harare, they had come to see Morgan Tsvangirai at his final rally yesterday. He may be the most popular man in Zimbabwe, but the former trade union leader stands only a slim chance of defeating Robert Mugabe in what most observers believe will be a rigged presidential election.

Perched on the back of a lorry, using a portable microphone to address some 2,000 packed on to a patch of wasteland, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – the strongest ever challenger to an ageing President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled for 22 years – urged people to vote despite "intimidation on a massive scale".

"Don't be accomplices to fear," he said. If the election is "stolen" there must not be violence, he added, but "you know what to do" – take peacefully to the streets, while the MDC challenges the election result through the courts.

On the eve of the vote, the Zanu-PF government was still busily changing electoral rules, to halve the numbers of polling stations, put security forces in charge of voting and disenfranchise large chunks of MDC supporters. The electoral roll, just published, is chaotic: an independent survey found as many as half of the 5.6 million voters to be registered in the wrong districts.

Moments after Mr Tsvangirai's speech we were speeding away in a motley cavalcade of pick-ups and Peugeots, ducking and diving down potholed side streets, passing each other and driving parallel to protect a presidential candidate who has grown used to the threat of assassination.

In bustling central Harare, where nerves are frayed but excitement is mounting, a packed lorry and two cars pasted with Mr Tsvangirai's face crawled down Nelson Mandela Way, tooting. Grinning pedestrians offered the MDC's splayed-finger salute. A singing crowd had assembled outside the party's nerve centre, appropriately named Harvest House in a country whose ruling Zanu-PF party has brought half a million people to the brink of starvation. Across the road, hundreds of people queued for maize outside OK Bazaars. Not far away, Zanu-PF's headquarters on Rotten Row looked quiet.

An hour later, Mr Tsvangirai flopped into a wire chair on the porch of his modest cream-coloured bungalow in the suburb of Avondale, no different from the others but for dark-suited FBI-types prowling outside. He looked calm.

"It's my personality," he said. "But when one goes into an experience like this, you have to develop a single-minded attitude, focusing on the objective rather than the distractions. The objectives of democracy, economic recovery and improving the lives of Zimbabweans are totally motivating to me."

That personality, said by some colleagues to be nice but bordering on naive, landed Mr Tsvangirai in trouble just two weeks before this weekend's election. He and two other MDC leaders face charges of treason over their role in an alleged plot, involving a shady Canadian political consultancy, to assassinate Mr Mugabe, which they vehemently deny.

The MDC claims that the consultancy, which turned out to be working for Mr Mugabe, set them up. But Mr Tsvangirai says he will not stop trusting people or harden his character were he, against dreadful odds, to win the election.

"I will not be creating a Morgan Tsvangirai personality other than the one I enjoy and am confident about. But from now on, people must earn my trust," he said.

There are several scenarios facing Mr Tsvangirai on the eve of the most important election in the country's history since independence from Britain in 1980. One is a clear victory that will make it difficult for Mr Mugabe and his security forces to reject the result, despite recent threats of a military coup if Mr Mugabe were to lose.

If that happens, he says, he will set about prioritising food relief to starving citizens, restoring the rule of law, implementing structured land reform, and rescuing an economy in spiralling decline – it has shrunk 30 per cent in two years – to create jobs and improve people's plummeting standards of living.

More worrying for him is the most likely scenario: what he calls a "stolen victory" by Mr Mugabe. In this case, he says, the MDC has two options: the people and the courts. By working through the courts to challenge Zanu-PF electoral rigging, he says, the party has carefully laid the foundation for post-election legal challenges. More directly, it will rely on popular sentiment to challenge Mr Mugabe's government. "Unlike Zanu-PF, we will have a non-violent approach to a stolen victory," he said.

The leader of the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, has been virtually assured victory in tomorrow's presidential election by the decision of his main challenger to withdraw from the race. Andre Milongo said yesterday that he was pulling out because "those who are organising the election do not want openness".