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Anticipation Builds in Zimbabwe Election Campaign

Anticipation is building on the streets of Zimbabwe as two opposition candidates battle to unseat the country's longtime ruler in Saturday's [March 29] election. One opposition rally attracted 20,000 people, even as President Robert Mugabe pledged he will win his sixth term. The feeling on the ground has been described as "electrifying" by Zimbabweans, with restrictions on opposition campaigning eased and more public meetings allowed. A correspondent for VOA, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, is in Zimbabwe, files this report on the lead-up to elections.

Days before Zimbabwe's national election, young campaigners put up posters for an opposition party's candidates.

The headlines in one of the government-run newspapers proclaim the president's plan to re-instate mandatory price controls on basic commodities.

And at a campaign rally in Harare, President Robert Mugabe threatens to nationalize British companies. He says, "After the elections we will look into that."

Critics say Mr. Mugabe seeks to deflect voters attention from an economy reeling under an official inflation rate of 100,000 percent and unemployment that some estimate at 80 percent.

But people working to unseat Mr. Mugabe at the Bulawayo offices of Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, speak of victory.

Paul Temba Nyathi is an MDC candidate for parliament.

"The average Zimbabwean is a decent human being,” Nyathi said. “We desire freedom, we require solidarity from the international community. We need people to say to Mugabe: 'What you are doing is unacceptable.'"

Voters will decide Saturday [March 29] who controls the parliament and they will select senators and councilors in a charged electoral climate. Opposition leaders say they expect hundreds of thousands to go to the polls, anxious for reform.

The 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe, in power for 28 years and seeking a sixth term, faces what could be his toughest challenge.

Twenty-thousand people attended a raucous rally Sunday for MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai, who is in the race.

Former ruling party Finance Minister Simba Makoni is also in the race, announcing his challenge early this month.

Member of Parliament David Coltart is a member of MDC, supporting the Makoni faction says, "We certainly don't have conditions for a free and fair election. We don't have access to media, there is a lot of covert intimidation taking place, especially in the rural areas, where food is used as a political weapon."

Mr. Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF Party insist elections will be free and fair.

In a TV address, Zimbabwe's Justice Minister Patrick Chinimasa says that opposition candidates' their accusations of election rigging are false. "That is utter rubbish," he said.

Coltart remains skeptical. He says, "Robert Mugabe has already told us that he will arrange for the presidential ballots to be finally collated in a very secretive command center in Harare, and it does appear that he is engage in brazen and rampant rigging just to confirm his own election"

Zimbabwe's government says it will not allow any Western journalists into the country to cover the voting. So many video images, like these, emerging from the country are shot undercover.

Amnesty International accuses the government of intimidating and harassing those who support the opposition.

Themba Nyathi tells a reporter he fears government retribution should Mr. Mugabe win again. "I think the people have born so much in the past 28 years of ZANU's mis-rule, I just pray and hope that ZANU-PF does not attempt to do what your question implies. I think the consequences would be too grave for anyone to contemplate," Nyathi said.

Still these campaigners spirits remain high as they spread their message - with blaring music and shouted slogans in a nation that has grown accustomed to hardship.