Harare, Zimbabwe – There is a quiet ambivalence about the peaceful preparations for elections here in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare.
Far from the intimidation and violence that characterised the disastrous 2008 elections, the atmosphere in the capital is unobtrusive, even cautiously optimistic of the change that so many seek in Zimbabwe.
“There is no way (Robert) Mugabe can win these elections. The man needs to go,” many supporters told Al Jazeera at the final rally of leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in Harare on Tuesday.
The polls on Wednesday will bring to an end an uncomfortable five-year coalition of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, and many ordinary Zimbabweans will cast their vote, hoping for a leadership far from the bickering that has characterised the “government of national unity”.
For many, the perceived harmony in the city and much of the country tells a tale of overall fatigue with a life fraught with economic difficulty, political uncertainty and personal discomfort.
For others, the quiet is naught but the still surface of an ocean, hiding the turbulent waters beneath. They predict trouble ahead if their favoured candidate loses.
Both parties head into Wednesday’s vote with the belief that their candidate is assured of victory and promising no compromises.
Meanwhile, the capital city is busily preparing for election day itself.
MDC and Zanu-PF posters wrap themselves around lamp posts and tree trunks with wanton abandon. Others remain firmly glued to the contours of sewerage pipes, under the rush of pedestrian traffic on sidewalks while more hang from perches on rubbish bins.
There seems to be not a single space that has been spared the invasion of electioneering images.
While the MDC have focused on a campaign promising “Morgan is more”, in reference to the gains made over the past five years, as the country grappled with a grotesque economic crisis, their overarching campaign remains pinned on toppling Mugabe.
In contrast, Zanu-PF have relied on the image of a younger-looking Mugabe leading the liberation movement that brought Zimbabwe independence. The party has slipped pamphlets into state newspapers that illustrate the brutality of colonialism, and have peppered rallies with historical anecodotes that have put even some of its own supporters to sleep.
The purposeful attempt to rejuvenate Mugabe as a liberation leader has left Zanu-PF with the appearance of an anachronistic entity out of sync with modern times.
But apart from the political rallies, and heaps of party paraphernalia – with a sea of t-shirts, berets, caps and even vuvuzelas distributed across the city – the overall calm has also lent the situation an unpredictable air of tension.
While the peaceful run-up to these elections has the potential to distract attention from the electoral process, the issue in this election is not violence, said McDonald Lewanika, director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC), an umbrella group of human rights organisations.
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“Both parties learnt their lesson from 2008 and now they seek more salient ways of manipulating the process, because violence erodes legitimacy, and this is what they seek,” Lewanika said.
Despite promising to take part in the elections, and win them, the MDC claim the vote will be compromised. Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s finance minister and the MDC general secretary, described the election as “immoral and illegal”.
And to many, the suspicion that Zanu-PF will attempt to manipulate the vote in their poorly monitored rural strongholds has become a foregone conclusion.
Those who believe a poll rigged in Zanu-PF’s favour is a certainty point out that there are many opportunities in the voting cycle to tinker with the final results – from secrecy over the electoral roll, secretly commissioned polling stations, to manipulating the communication process when ballot numbers are sent to central command.
So, while political violence has not marred election preparations, the talk in Zimbabwe is of a meticulous method of exclusion, disenfranchisement and electoral fraud designed to perpetuate the power of the ruling elite.
“There have been disputes over the voters’ roll, and this could have been a deliberate ploy to exclude these first-time voters,” Blessing Vava, political analyst and spokesperson of the National Constitutional Assembly, told Al Jazeera.
Vava said this negates the vote of the young and undecided who have no link to the liberation era and bear no loyalty to Zanu-PF.
Electoral fraud aside, activists say these elections will be crucial in determining the direction in which Zimbabwe heads in the coming years. To many the choice seems to be four more years of perceived institutional paralysis or an opportunity for a new political order.
Zimbabweans, however, will still have to come out to vote if they want to change the status quo.
It is now a question of memory, people say.
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“We talk about thousands of lives being affected, but in the end it’s a case of millions of lives who have not been normal as result of policies,” said Petina Gappah, a novelist and activist.
By any measure, Zimbabwe has ceased to be a fully functional state for more than a decade.
Two million Zimbabweans live across the border in South Africa, “to escape hardship” as locals describe it.
As it stands, more than 80 percent of citizens remain unemployed, with most forced into the informal economy as vendors hustle to survive. Zimbabwe remains the most literate country on the continent – but its well-reputed education system has also been adversely affected, with a mass exodus of teachers from the country and poor economic conditions forcing parents to withdraw children from schools, creating a new cycle of dependence and poverty in the country.
But not all Zimbabweans agree. Mugabe still has a legion of supporters who remain enamoured with his legacy as a “lone ranger” standing up to western hypocrisy.
“If we perish because things are difficult, then we will all perish together – we are one family,” said Godfrey Maara, a 58-year-old Zanu-PF supporter. “If we cannot eat and we have to eat sand because of sanctions, then that is what we will do.”
An estimated 35,000 people turned up to Mugabe’s final rally on Sunday, in what many see as his last bid for political office.
In the poorer districts of Mbare, a southern suburb of Harare, where poverty is a daily reminder of Mugabe’s disastrous land reform policy, economic maladministration and the corruption endemic to Zimbabwe, memories of hard times are in no short supply.
Here, there is desperation to rid the country of “the old man”.
In 2005, Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina, or “Restore Order”, a “clean-up project” that targeted the urban poor, and Mbare was particularly affected.
Some 700,000 people across the country lost their livelihoods and homes in an operation that lasted two devastating months.
“I was forced to sleep on the streets for a month after they bulldozed my house,” said Frank Manemo.
“People here will go and vote for change, but they are afraid of the violence,” added the 39-year-old.
And while peaceful engagement has been a rallying call by all political leaders, including Tsvangirai and Mugabe, the threat of intimidation and violence is still just a heartbeat away.
With the MDC holding a “cross-over” rally – provocatively dubbed: “Welcoming the new president” – in Freedom Square on Monday, just days before polls open, the party has created a perception among voters in their traditional urban strongholds of Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Gweru that they have done enough to win the vote.
MDC supporters say they will not accept defeat – neither will they accept a government of compromise, as followed the 2008 poll.
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“From 1997, I have been looking for work, looking for a better life… If we don’t win on Wednesday, there will be a coup in this country,” 54-year-old Concilla Mushore told Al Jazeera.
The significant anti-Mugabe sentiment in urban areas aside, recent studies suggest MDC strongholds also remain the areas least likely to see large turnouts at the polling booths.
In June, the MDC conceded it was suffering from voter apathy in their purported strongholds. But the issue around apathy is not limited to the MDC. In March, analysts were surprised when just two million of an eligible five million voted during the constitutional referendum.
Lewanika, from the CiZC, said there was a threshold to how far this vote could be manipulated – and low turnouts provided fertile ground for fraud to take place:
“We are telling people to come out in their numbers, to vote – because this is the only way.”
Additional reporting by Tendai Marima.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa