There is less than a week to go before Zimbabweans go to the polls for long-awaited presidential elections. The two main candidates, incumbent President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, held competing campaign rallies in the capital Sunday.
In an effort to show he is still healthy and vibrant at 78, President Mugabe addressed three separate election rallies in and near Harare. One was held in the sprawling township of Mbare, on the outskirts of town. Several thousand people gathered to hear Mr. Mugabe speak. They wore T-shirts and colorful clothing bearing the president's photograph and the logo of his party, ZANU-PF.
Mr. Mugabe spent much of his speech talking about the past, especially the struggle for independence from white minority rule. He also repeatedly blasted Zimbabwe's colonial ruler, Britain, and especially British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who he accuses of bias toward the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC. "For a prime minister to stand in parliament and say in advance, the MDC is winning, prepare to recognize it?," Mr. Mugabe asked. "What if it doesn't win? What if ZANU-PF wins? As indeed we shall win, and win resoundingly."
The remarks came as Mr. Blair met with other Commonwealth leaders in Australia, where he has been pushing the Commonwealth nations to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe because of ongoing political violence and instability. The move has met resistance from African nations, who want to wait until the elections are over before they begin to consider sanctions.
Meanwhile, a few kilometers away from Mr. Mugabe's election rally, his main rival for the presidency held his own rally in the township of Highfield. Morgan Tsvangirai told his supporters he could only lose if Mr. Mugabe "steals the election". He told the crowd, "If we lose this election, God forbid, this country is doomed. We have to win this election. And I think by your presence, by your attendance, this has shown a clear signal that we are going to win."
Both gatherings drew thousands of supporters. But the moods at the two rallies were very different. At the ZANU-PF meeting, the crowd was largely subdued except for a core of staunch supporters near the front. Much of the rest of the audience stood impassively and only occasionally applauded, without much enthusiasm.
But the scene was very different at the MDC rally. The audience was only slightly larger than the one at Mr. Mugabe's rally. But the level of enthusiasm was measurably higher. The sound of chanting and cheering could be heard blocks away. As Mr. Tsvanigirai and other MDC leaders spoke, the entire crowd erupted into applause and flashed the party sign, an open palm. It literally became a sea of waving hands.
Nothing like that was evident at the ZANU-PF rally.
The rival election rallies are among the last ones that the two candidates will be holding before the voting starts on Saturday. Both gatherings were peaceful, although there have been increasing reports of violence and intimidation over the last few weeks.
The key questions now, aside from who will win, are how peaceful the voting will be, and whether the international community will consider the election free and fair.