THE will of the suffering masses versus the gritty determination of Robert Mugabe to stay in power: that in a nutshell is the contest taking place across Zimbabwe this weekend.
Â Put another way, how badly do Zimbabweans want to be free again and how badly does Mugabe still want to hang onto power?
Who then will emerge triumphant, the dictator who has robbed Zimbabweans of most of their dreams or the peopleâ€™s determination to free themselves from decades of dictatorship, economic privation and social destitution?
There is no doubt that were the people able to freely express themselves tomorrow this would be the end for Mugabe.
The air is pregnant with expectations for change. But Mugabe has a time- tested bag of tricks that could frustrate the will of the people once more.
Mugabeâ€™s campaign has lacked the energy and bombast of previous years.
His most persuasive weapon, namely violence, has been relatively absent largely because not many are prepared to maim and kill in his name anymore.
His message is tired and uninspiring and has been little more than a history lesson that has no relevance to the wretched existence of many Zimbabweans. This points to the fact that Mugabe can only win this election by rigging and nothing else.
The situation on the ground does not point to any possible reasons why anyone should vote for Mugabe.
Â Picture the following: official inflation is at a whopping 100 580%. Life under such levels of inflation can at best be described as a nightmare. Unemployment is over 80% and life expectancy is down to 37 years.Â Â
The rural areas which are considered Mugabeâ€™s stronghold have been worst affected by price controls and the acute shortage of basic commodities.
Seed and fertiliser have been in short supply and Mother Nature has conspired to deliver two consecutive poor agricultural seasons. The financial ruin facing Mugabe means he has limited resources to buy rural votes on a nationwide scale.
So to some extent he canâ€™t afford to buy the rural votes anymore due to his own ill-advised policies and of course the effects of Western sanctions. So the truth is that few will vote for him this time around because he simply has little to offer. But make no mistake, there are still some who see him as a hero because they know no better.
Limited access to independent media, especially in the rural areas, also means that some have been victims of government propaganda and will vote for him for that reason despite their own personal circumstances telling a different story. Those in receipt of Mugabeâ€™s patronage in the military, police, traditional chiefs and government will work hard to deliver victory to Mugabe so that they continue looting.
Â Indeed, some voters will succumb to the seductive effect of free tractors, computers, buses, combine harvesters and food and vote for Mugabe. The huge salary hikes for civil servants and soldiers were also meant to purchase their support.
But many more will see Mugabeâ€™s latest acts of generosity for what they are, namely desperate attempts to buy their votes.
While accepting these gifts, they will realise that these inducements will not change the economic fundamentals characterised by high inflation, rapidly declining productivity and joblessness.
People are tired of handouts and being
made to depend on a manipulative Mugabe. They want their lives back and not these self-serving gifts. Many Zimbabweans in the towns and rural areas have come to realise that Mugabe is the problem, not the solution. How then can he claim victory under these circumstances?
In this connection, it is always important to remember that rigging is not an event but a process that has been unfolding for the past 10 years to create an uneven playing field for the opposition. Of course, the process reaches its climax on polling day, and more specifically in the counting of the ballots. The announcement by service chiefs that they will not accept any result other than a Mugabe victory is both a sign of panic in Mugabeâ€™s camp and an act of naked intimidation. But the people are likely to challenge this.
The last minute decision to allow police into and around polling stations under the pretext of helping the old and infirm will be abused to favour the incumbent.
Only in January, Mugabe removed this piece of legislation as a concession during the President Mbeki-led negotiations. The fact that he now needs this shows how desperate he is to win.
To frustrate opposition voters in the urban areas, Mugabe has ensured there are fewer polling stations compared to rural areas.
This will see a repeat of the last presidential elections which saw long queues and many urban voters unable to cast their votes. He has ignored opposition calls to rectify this. And yet the rural voters might have a surprise for him.
All we can say is that the stage is set for the final showdown. All the actors are in place. The main actors are: â€œWe the people against our oppressorâ€™â€™.
And this is a play that we have seen so often across Africa with the oppressors or rulers standing in the way of change being humiliated. Remember Kamuzu Banda of Malawi who failed to read the signs and was humiliated at the polls, and the lovable Kenneth Kaunda. Oh and Polokwane of course!
This has the look and feel of the end for Mugabe. The peopleâ€™s yearning for freedom appears to be greater than any other force at the moment. If his bag of tricks helps him subvert the will of the people then this is certainly the beginning of the end.
One thing almost certain is he will not win in the first round and might be very lucky to make it to the run-off. Apart from rigging the only other thing on Mugabeâ€™s side is that Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai will split the opposition vote and let him back in by default.
Despite this, there is reason to believe that the will of the people will triumph over Mugabeâ€™s wishes. It would certainly be a disaster for Zimbabwe if Mugabe stole the election again. He simply has no capacity to positively change the lives of Zimbabweans.
Trevor Ncube is chairman of the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard, and CEO of the Mail & Guardian.
Â By Trevor Ncube