NORTON, Zimbabwe -- With national elections starting today, President Robert Mugabe's campaign rally here this week was typical in many ways.
He kept his suit coat buttoned and tie tightly knotted despite sweltering noonday heat. He was flanked by Cabinet ministers, generals in gleaming medals and yellow braid. His new helicopter drew far more attention than his hour-long speech. The 71-year-old president pleaded for votes, ridiculed critics and promised hospitals, schools and roads.
The question was why Mr. Mugabe even bothered. Fifteen years after white-ruled Rhodesia became black-ruled Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zanu (PF) party is so firmly entrenched in power that the parliamentary election this weekend -- the third since independence in 1980 -- is almost a formality.
So few opposition candidates have registered to run against Zanu that Mr. Mugabe is assured a majority before the first vote is cast. His party held 147 of the 150 seats after the 1990 election, and an even more lopsided majority is possible now in the rubber-stamp Parliament.
That, of course, is no accident. The government controls all radio, television and every major newspaper. It provides the ruling party nearly $4 million a year in taxpayers' money, but none to the tiny opposition. Mr. Mugabe appointed the commission that will oversee the balloting, and has refused calls for international monitors.
So will it be a free and fair democratic election?
"I don't know," Mr. Mugabe said in a brief interview after the rally. "Why not? The people are going to vote. No one is forcing anyone to vote in any direction. So yes, it will be a democratic vote. Why not?"
His critics give lots of reasons, ranging from intimidation of voters to a voters' list so riddled with inaccuracies and duplications that it may contain up to 1 million fraudulent names, according to a Western diplomat.
"The political playing field is decidedly tilted," the diplomat said.
John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, is less charitable. "He's created a defacto one-party state," he said. "It's become difficult to distinguish the government from the party."
Mr. Makumbe said the president's challenge is to overcome the apathy, distrust and frustration among the 4.5 million registered voters.
"There's a very strong likelihood he'll only get 30 to 35 percent turnout," he said. "That's Mugabe's horror. Because it says the ,, legitimacy of his government is in question."
To be sure, Mr. Mugabe's 15-year rule so far has created a stable government in a continent fraught with collapsing nation states and tribal fighting. There is little racial or ethnic tension here, and schools and medical care have been improved.
Mr. Mugabe has discarded ruinous Socialist economic policies for a strict World Bank regimen of structural adjustment and free market reforms. And the brutal police-state tactics of the 1980s are no longer in evidence.
"This has been a relatively peaceful election so far," said a Zimbabwe Human Rights Organization spokesman.