Less than two weeks before the voters of Zimbabwe go to the polls, it appears to be dawning on President Robert Mugabe that brutal intimidation, censorship of the media and rabid "anti-imperialist" bombast may not be sufficient to guarantee him re-election. This is one inference – perhaps the most hopeful one – that can be drawn from the arrest yesterday of the country's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mr Tsvangirai was detained and questioned for two hours, before emerging from the police station to say that he had been charged with treason – a crime which attracts the death penalty. That Mr Tsvangirai was released and may well not be summoned to face the charges until after the election, if then, shows that this was yet another example of the political harassment in which Mr Mugabe's regime specialises. If the opposition leader is really such a threat to the country's security as to warrant trial for treason, then it stands to reason that his place is in prison, rather than out campaigning for election.
The evidence on which the charges are based seems equally spurious. It is contained in a mysterious video broadcast on Australian television, which purports to show Mr Tsvangirai in talks to arrange the "elimination" of Mr Mugabe. The video, which bore all the hallmarks of having been heavily edited, if not doctored, has been extensively replayed and reported in the state-controlled Zimbabwe media. Again, the aim appears to be not to prevent Mr Tsvangirai from competing for the presidency, but to discredit him with the voters; to do everything to render the opposition unelectable, while still going through the motions of an election.
Even this, however, may not be enough. According to unconfirmed reports seeping out through unidentified "diplomatic sources", Mr Mugabe's internal polling shows that despite all his precautions, he could yet lose on 9-10 March. Anticipating this possibility, he is supposedly seeking refuge abroad. Such information seepage could be deliberate disinformation – designed to scare wavering voters who might have something to fear from a change of regime.
If genuine, though, these reportstestify to mounting desperation. The glimmer of hope in Zimbabwe's pervasive political gloom is that the voters may be courageous enough to scorn the coercion. The more desperate the actions of Mr Mugabe, the more brightly that hope shines through.