Zimbabwe Assesses Mugabe's 28 Years

In an election riddled with questions and concerns, Zimbabweans must decide whether to gamble on more years of Mugabe or move on.

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It's D-Day in Zimbabwe, and so far there's been huge turnout from among the 5.6 million registered voters who have been lining up since the still-dark early morning hours. The D could stand either for Democracy or Disaster. Democracy would mean that for the first time in a long time—more than a decade—Zimbabwe would have an uncontested, free and fair election.

Disaster would be a contested, unfair election that was not free. And that would undoubtedly mean that the 84-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, would be returned to power in a country that is now staring into the abyss, facing more than 100,000 percent inflation. There is no food on the shelves, or money to buy even if there were.

Unemployment is running at some 80-plus percent, there are chronic fuel shortages, life expectancy is reduced to some 35 years and the country is hemorrhaging population as people flee the country. Almost all independent media voices are muted or silenced.

It is a common reference now to say that Zimbabwe has gone from being one of Africa's breadbaskets to being one of Africa's basket cases, and it is also a widely held view that if all this happened on Mugabe's watch, then he is responsible.

Continuing Mugabe rule will likely mean continuing opposition, though no one is sure what form it will take. Mugabe accepts neither blame for Zimbabwe's current woes, nor for the potentially disastrous consequences that follow a scenario in which he is re-elected. He blames Britain and other western powers for the country's woes, including the sanctions slapped on by the U.S. and other Western countries and he told Al-Jazeera this week that he was "overconfident" of winning the election and that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would never be in power as long as he was alive.

But Mugabe has drawn an unprecedented two challengers, and they disagree. The newest, Simba Makoni, has acknowledged his role in some of the elements of the crisis, since he once served as Mugabe's Finance Minister and was on the powerful politburo of the ruling ZANU-PF party. But he has now left the party (though is without one, himself) and is now expressing remorse and regret. He has pledged to "see an end to the reign of mismanagement," as his campaign spokesman Nkosana Moyo told those members of the media. (Mugabe's government has banned most media from covering the election and many are hanging, trying to cover it from Johannesburg.)

I didn't even apply since I work for an international news organization and most of those are on the country's baaaad list (Al-Jazeera being one of the exceptions.) At the beginning the last election I went to cover in 2005, I was detained by Mugabe's police until it was too late to report on any of the days activities.

And so, we, the undesirables, cover the story from Johannesburg, where there often appear to be more Zimbabweans than back in their country. My NPR colleague, Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, has been camped here for weeks waiting and hoping for accreditation.

On Wednesday, she had still not given up hope, but she joined the "Coalition of the Banned" to hear the voice and views of the opposition candidate via his spokesman, Nkosana Moyo. And what we all heard from him was what we have also heard from the other opposition candidate, the Movement for Democratic Change's Morgan Tsvengirai; to wit, in Moyo's view : There is a major scheme to create a façade of open elections, but, in reality, a number of things militate against them. An element of secrecy that obliterates transparency in the voters rolls, that closed Feb. 14 (Moyo insists there is evidence that some voters were allowed to register vote later.)

Sometime on Wednesday, the opposition MDC lodged an urgent appeal in court to open the balloting process out of concern that the voter rolls contained the names of countless dead people (did the government take a page out of Chicago's book? No, said government supporters, who charged the MDC's complaints were simply aimed at discrediting the election