MASVINGO, Zimbabwe — Few people in this long-suffering nation can recall political life before Robert Mugabe, the liberation hero who moved into the presidential mansion 28 years ago and has never left.
Despite presiding over one of the most stunning economic collapses in modern African history, Mugabe has held on to power through fear, bullying and a series of less-than-fair elections. But with the next vote just days away, many weary Zimbabweans are asking: Could Mugabe finally be defeated?
The 84-year-old president faces his toughest election challenge ever March 29, including, for the first time, a contender from within his all-powerful ruling party. The entry of Simba Makoni, a polished former finance minister, into the race last month prompted a flood of people to register to vote. Many Zimbabweans think that the end is nigh for one of Africa's longest-running dictatorships.
"This is the year. Mugabe will go," said Ronald Nyoni, 41, an unemployed antenna-fitter in the capital, Harare. Nyoni joined Makoni's campaign last month, having boycotted the past two national elections because, as he put it, "it didn't matter."
Makoni, 57, represents growing discontent within the ruling party, known as ZANU-PF, which under Mugabe's leadership has been marked by a series of disasters. First Mugabe launched a land-redistribution scheme that handed thousands of white-owned farms to party loyalists, grinding the agricultural economy to a halt. Then, to pay the bills, his government printed currency like mad, producing the world's highest inflation rate, estimated at 200,000 percent. A quarter of the population fled the country.
Zimbabwe today is a land of hungry billionaires, where everyone carries bricks of cash and yet the poorest can afford to buy cooking oil only by the tablespoon. Shops lack basic goods, hospitals are devoid of doctors and drugs, power and sewer lines don't get fixed anymore and a loaf of bread that goes for 4 million Zimbabwean dollars one day (about 10 U.S. cents at the unofficial exchange rate) could cost double that the next.
"In a free and fair election, he would be history," said Sydney Masamvu, an analyst who worked as a journalist in Zimbabwe until 2003, when Mugabe shut down the country's last independent daily newspaper.
Of course, no one expects the feisty former guerilla leader, still fighting trim in bespoke suits, to go out just like that.
Many believe that Mugabe rigged the last election, in 2002, and he commands the support of most of the officials who are running this election. Two senior members of the armed services recently announced that they won't follow orders from anyone but the man who led the long struggle for independence from Britain.
But the economic crisis hasn't spared rank-and-file officers and civil servants, and experts predict that these pro-Mugabe blocs could break for Makoni or for the third candidate in the field, longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
"The difficulty (Mugabe) is having is the dilution of his support," said Pedzisai Ruhanya of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a consortium of civic groups. "The military is divided; so are security agents and civil servants. The big guns at the core of his rigging machinery are split."
For the many party loyalists who've been rewarded with land, wealth and patronage under Mugabe, Makoni offers a chance for a relatively painless transition. A member of the party's politburo until he was ousted for announcing his candidacy, he's vowed not to overturn the land redistribution or to look too closely at the wrongdoings of the Mugabe era, but merely to bring a new face to the movement.
"The party makes good policies. The failure is in implementing them," Makoni said in an interview after a rally in Masvingo, a grim-looking town 200 miles south of Harare. "I was trying to influence change from within; that is why I stayed for so long."
Tsvangirai, who won 43 percent of the vote in the 2002 election and endured a well-publicized beating by security forces in a street demonstration last March, has dismissed Makoni as "old wine in a new bottle."
"Makoni is interfering with our struggle," said Fanuel Munengami, a parliamentary candidate from Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. "He is confusing people. You cannot join a race when it's almost over. He has been part and parcel of that corrupt system for the last 28 years."
Some analysts think that Tsvangirai could benefit from the schism within ZANU-PF. But his supporters charge that election officials are trying to blunt his massive support in urban areas by setting up disproportionately fewer polling stations in Harare and Bulawayo, the second-largest city. They also point to a recent decision barring votes by Zimbabweans overseas, who largely back Tsvangirai.
"They've got every trick that they can use," Munengami said. "We are really trying."
Even Makoni didn't seem certain that Mugabe would accept defeat.
"I can't speak for him," Makoni said. "He says he is a democrat and will respect the will of the people. I have to take his word for that."
On the campaign trail, Mugabe directs his sharpest vitriol at Makoni, whom he compares to a prostitute without clients. He's also stepped up his usual election-year giveaways, promising pay hikes for teachers and civil servants and handing out tractors and plows to farmers in depressed rural areas that have traditionally been his strongholds. All of which he'll pay for, analysts say, by printing more money.
"He's panicking," said John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "Now the sins are too many. He doesn't have answers for these things. He considers himself the custodian of Zimbabwean sovereignty and talks of fighting off British colonialism ... but people are saying, 'We cannot eat any of those things.' "