For the first time, many people in Zimbabwe's rural areas have dropped their long-standing support of President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF, which has depended on the rural vote for victory.  Peta Thornycroft reports that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has made inroads into Mr. Mugabe's traditional strongholds before elections Saturday.

Deep into the bush from the nearest village of Headlands, then across shocking roads into a remote rural area about 130 kilometers southeast of Harare, the landscape seems empty of people and livestock.

The area used to be a prosperous commercial farming district, but most of the farms have been idle since they were nationalized during the past eight years.  Many people have fled to South Africa to look for work to support their families.

Disease has also ravaged the population.  Doctors say poor nutrition has taken its toll on those infected with HIV/AIDS.  One Harare doctor estimates about 10,000 young people are dying a week.

But in Headlands the topic of conversation is the upcoming election.  In the village, which is one short street, people in one shabby shop that has little to sell, agree this is the most peaceful election in many years.

Mununudzi Ghitsa, who is standing for local government office and loyal to Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, says his supporters can campaign easily.  He said for the first time in eight years people can wear political T-shirts without fear.

He said he was in a last-minute push to educate people about where to vote.

"Some of them they know, some need to be educated, so we are running around to educate them," he noted.

Another supporter of the divided MDC, Patricia Kamembo, is loyal to founding president Morgan Tsvangirai.  She said her worry is about counting votes when 12 hours of voting closes Saturday.

Many district voters are anxious that votes for the presidential election will be counted in Harare instead of at the polling station.

"I am not happy if the counting is going to be done in Harare, since MDC has been losing, or any opposition party losing, because of this system of votes counted in Harare.  It is going to happen again," she said.  "The turnout in rallies, even if you speak to everyone, everywhere, hospitals, beer halls, buses everywhere, it seems as if everyone wants Morgan to rule."

She said the MDC had changed since the last elections, when it was a party of mostly young supporters.

"As I have been talking to several people, now even the old people want MDC to rule, so I am very sure MDC will win if anything does not go wrong with the counting," she added.

But Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa gave a long interview to state radio saying counting of all votes, including those for the presidential contest, will be done at polling stations.  The results would, he said, be posted outside the polling stations, and then transmitted to Harare.

Many in rural areas with no electricity, money for batteries for their radios, or newspapers will not find that out before election day.

Headlands is the home area of former finance minister Simba Makoni, who is running for president.  Political analysts say his late entry into the presidential race has changed the political landscape and divided the ruling ZANU-PF party.

He has credentials from the liberation war in the 1970s, which still has profound meaning to the generation who brought an end to minority white rule and independence from Britain in 1980.

One man, a 30-year-old peasant farmer whose father was resettled 16 years ago near Headlands village, was on his way to a ZANU-PF rally.

He was wearing a new ZANU-PF cap and a T-shirt supporting ZANU-PF parliamentary candidate Didymus Mutasa, the feared security minister.  Mutasa is also lands minister, and is accused of causing chaos in the land resettlement program.

He explained why he supported Didymus Mutasa

"I support him because I am on the land," he said.  "I was always a squatter from the beginning, so my father had land there, and I am growing tobacco and vegetables and different crops.  I manage to support even my kids, because of that land."

His father was part of an orderly resettlement program 16 years ago.  He began to laugh when asked about the opposition.

"Ah, the vote is my secret," he added.

Continuing to snort with laughter, he warned us that his ZANU-PF regalia did not match what was in his heart.  He confided that he was protecting his land by going to Mutasa's rally, but that he was a supporter of Simba Makoni, because he had known him all his life.

But there are still some in the Headlands district who continue to support ZANU-PF and Mr. Mugabe.

Ephraim Gwatidzo and a group of about 12 mostly young ZANU-PF supporters were walking towards Mutasa's rally and stopped to talk to VOA.

They say they support ZANU-PF, because they were given land and because their parents supported ZANU-PF.  Two of them, both civil servants and deeply suspicious, walked away and did not want to talk to VOA.

Others wanted to sing war songs from ZANU-PF's extensive repertoire.  The first was from the war against white farmers in 2000.

Mr. Mugabe has warned repeatedly in the past week that Morgan Tsvangirai will "never, ever, ever" rule Zimbabwe.