Supporters of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe are doing all they can to ensure that he wins re-election on Saturday. The 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since 1980. Now he faces challenges from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former finance minister Simba Makoni. Mr. Mugabe wants to take 51 per cent of the vote, to avoid a run-off against either of his rivals. Many international observers are predicting that the ballot will not be free and fair. President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party stand accused of rigging previous elections. In the build-up to the polls, Mr. Mugabe?s security forces have again been arresting and assaulting opposition supporters. In the fourth of our series on the Zimbabwe elections, VOA?s Darren Taylor examines the state of the ruling party.

President Mugabe has presided over the worst economic crisis in Zimbabwe?s history. There are food and fuel shortages, mass unemployment and the highest inflation rate in the world. Mr. Mugabe, though, remains a hero to millions of Africans and much admired in the developing world for his anti-Western views. In the 1970s, he fought a war of liberation against the white minority Rhodesian government and won independence for his people.

After he took office in 1980, Mr. Mugabe preached reconciliation, and economic reforms led to sustained growth. The country?s agriculture sector boomed, with Zimbabwe becoming a regional breadbasket. But the country is now a net importer of food, and agriculture has collapsed. President Mugabe blames the situation on persistent drought. But many analysts trace Zimbabwe?s agricultural implosion back to his land reform program: in 2000 the government began seizing farms owned by white Zimbabweans for what it said was ?redistribution to landless blacks.? Yet in many cases, the land went to Mr. Mugabe?s allies in the ruling party.

It is for reasons such as these that he commands a loyal and boisterous following from Zimbabwe?s army and police, former liberation war veterans and the much-feared ZANU-PF youth militia.

President Mugabe also blames the food shortages, high unemployment and skyrocketing inflation on Western sanctions ? even though the United States, European Union and others have not instituted economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. These countries have, however, launched ?targeted? sanctions against individuals in Zimbabwe, by means of which Mr. Mugabe and other senior ruling party members are banned from traveling to America and certain parts of Europe and their assets there have been seized. 

ZANU-PF ?at its weakest?

Leading up to the March 29 ballot, analysts say the ZANU-PF campaign has been in relative disarray.

?For the simple reason that when all the social indicators in the country are negative, what is ZANU-PF trying to sell to the electorate? They have ruined the economy; there are (power) outages; there is no water, no sanitation; (there?s) hunger, poverty. What message are they going to sell to the electorate? On what basis would Mugabe seek re-election from the people of Zimbabwe asks Sydney Masamvu, a Zimbabwean analsyst with the International Crisis Group.

As the election nears, there?ve been reports of ZANU-PF candidates being imposed on constituencies and of individuals openly defying the party and registering themselves as candidates in the municipal and parliamentary polls that?ll be held on the same day as the presidential ballot.

In addition, some ZANU-PF members have been abandoning the party to join their one-time colleague, former finance minister Simba Makoni, who has broken ranks to oppose President Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

?More than anything else, the entrance of Makoni into the race has resulted in paranoia and panic in ZANU-PF ranks,? Masamvu contends.

Blessing Zulu, a journalist with VOA?s Studio 7 Zimbabwe Service, agrees. He says, ?They (ZANU-PF) don?t know who is really supporting them and who is not. So what they?ve resorted to saying is that every parliamentary candidate, councilor or senator, before they start campaigning, they first have to tell the electorate to vote for President Robert Mugabe, as a way of ensuring that Mugabe does not lose this election.?

The president himself, though, is seemingly undeterred. He has promised a ?landslide victory? to ?shame? his critics in the international community. He is supremely confident of winning another five-year term.

But Briggs Bomba, a former student activist in Zimbabwe now working for the Africa Action lobby group in Washington, D.C., says despite the ?bravado? that Mugabe is exuding ? which includes branding his opponents ?witches,? ?charlatans,? ?two headed creatures? and ?prostitutes? ? the president clearly feels threatened ahead of the polls.

?ZANU-PF is at its weakest at the present moment?. That?s why it?s not given that they?ll take the election now (if it?s free and fair). Every other time we?ve sort of known: Oh, Mugabe is (going to be) winning.?

Bomba attributes this state of affairs to ?the Makoni factor? and the fact that other senior ruling party members, such as former Interior Minister Dumiso Dabengwa, have switched allegiances from Mugabe to Makoni, causing uncertainty in the ruling party ranks.

Masamvu concurs: ?I think when you see people like Dumiso coming out (against Mugabe), it?s a very strong signal that ZANU-PF is imploding; that ZANU-PF will never be the same again. It?s disintegrating.?

Dabengwa is highly respected in Zimbabwe. He?s a liberation war hero who commanded guerrilla fighters during the country?s bush war, before being jailed without trial by Mr. Mugabe in post-independent Zimbabwe.

Dabengwa maintains there are other senior ruling party officials who are supporting Makoni against president Mugabe ? albeit secretly at this stage.

Last December, discord was sown in ZANU-PF when Mr. Mugabe subverted the party?s constitution to avoid a challenge to his leadership. This, says Makoni, resulted in the ruling party congress merely ?rubberstamping? yet another presidential term for Mr. Mugabe.

?We also saw other sections of the war veteran element ? some of them quite senior ? breaking ranks away (from the president) and joining Makoni?s camp. In Bulawayo, there are reports that the army and certain sections of the police were clandestinely throwing out some fliers for the Makoni campaign,? says Bomba.

Michelle Gavin, of the United States? Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the group?s Special Report on Zimbabwe, says there?s ?long been a power struggle? between various factions within ZANU-PF ? ?different elements of the party who recognise that continuing to go on the way they?ve been doing in recent years isn?t really in their best interests. They have significant holdings and investments, and at a certain point, this economic collapse ? that?s been very lucrative for some in the inner circle ? starts to threaten the long-term outlook of these investments. So there?s been a kind of jockeying for position and unrest in the ruling party for quite some time.?

She says, though, that despite all the talk of ?Mugabe in crisis? and ?ZANU-PF dissolving,? Mr. Mugabe is a great survivor.

?President Mugabe?s always been very effective in being able to divide and conquer, to keep each faction off balance.?

Mugabe to try to avert ?embarrassment?

Under revamped electoral rules, a candidate must win 51 per cent of the vote in order to be declared an outright winner ? unlike in the past, when a simple majority sufficed to ensure victory. If he fails to secure this, then he?ll face a run-off ? to be held 21 days after the ballot ? against the candidate who secures second place in the popular polling.

Bomba comments, ?For Mugabe, he wants to avoid the embarrassment of a run-off, so I?m sure he?s going to use his machinery to ensure that the constituency that will vote for him turns out in record numbers. So I?m sure the villages, the rural areas, are going to be whipped massively so that they turn out very massively. The question that is not clear at the moment is whether the opposition will have a similar strategy to bring out the urban electorate which is traditionally loyal to the opposition, so that it turns out in equally record numbers.?

But analysts concede that both Tsvangirai and Makoni face a far more daunting task in motivating support than Mugabe does.

?It?s difficult for them to do, because they don?t have access to state resources. Previous elections have seen army trucks taking Mugabe supporters to the polls, for example,? says Masamvu.

M.D.C. secretary general Tendai Biti says the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has asked the company that's printing ballots to print millions of extra papers in order to sway the vote Mr. Mugabe's way.  

But Masamvu remains confident that there will indeed be a run-off: ?When you have three strong candidates it will need a fairly efficient and sophisticated rigging machinery for Mugabe to garner the 51 per cent of the votes (he needs to gain an outright victory)?. We are likely to see that the three-way context will cause a split after the first round of voting, and then there will be a run-off between Mugabe and either Makoni or Tsvangirai, with the candidate who finished third supporting his former opponent against Mugabe.?

Speaking from Harare, M.D.C. supporter Janet Gono told VOA, ?We?re hoping that the outcome of the election will trigger a run-off which will force all the opposition forces to come together. This can only be a good thing for Zimbabweans. Then we will celebrate, no matter what, because hope will be renewed.? 

International and local analysts, though, still can?t foresee a Mugabe defeat in a run-off.

ZANU-PF mobilizing its machinery

Bomba says ZANU-PF is ?not sleeping right now, trying to ensure that they tightly secure their strongholds and whip up people through coercion and also through this patronage system that they?ve always had ? these handouts that always come out during election time ? to ensure that especially the rural vote comes out for Mugabe.?

Zulu says almost 80 per cent of Zimbabwe?s population lives in the rural areas, ?and that is President Mugabe?s stronghold. Both Tsvangirai and Makoni have been finding it difficult to penetrate these areas.?

Ahead of the polls, President Mugabe has given hefty salary increases to civil servants. Makoni accuses him of ?using money to buy votes.?

Brendan Murphy, Studio 7 chief, warns that the extent to which ZANU-PF is in disarray could be ?overstated.?

?The ZANU-PF apparatus is still running. They still have the war veterans firmly behind them; they spent the whole past several months marching around the country to endorse Mugabe?. They have the (ZANU-PF) youth militia who are not going to easily abandon Mugabe, I don?t think. They have the bureaucracy of government pretty firmly under their control.?

Murphy says the ruling party has all its resources that have proved so effective in securing elections in the past in its favor ?turned on? and ?cranked up.?

?(The ZANU-PF machine) is in motion right now. They?re hoping to re-run this election like (the victorious polls) in 2005, 2002.?

Gavin is also convinced that ZANU-PF?s ?implosion? may to a large degree be ?wishful thinking? and ?exaggeration? on the part of the party?s opponents.

?It seems to me also to be the case that  ZANU-PF isn?t just going to disappear (no matter the outcome of the polls).  ZANU-PF is going to be a part of any transition that comes in the future.?

But Zulu says even if Mr. Mugabe is emerges victorious once again, the president?s future ?won?t be smooth.?

?The economy is going to determine the future of Zimbabwe,? Zulu states. ?For how long can the people continue to suffer? That is the problem for Mr. Mugabe. His biggest enemy will be the economy. That?s one thing that he cannot rig.?