THE democratic transformation of southern Africa takes a potentially decisive step this week with the first free elections in Mozambique.
After two decades of civil war, however, many voters here worry their country won't repeat the peaceful transfers of power in neighboring Zambia, Malawi, and South Africa, but rather the escalation of fighting in Angola.
The Oct. 27 to 28 vote is meant to seal two-year-old peace accords that ended the civil war between rebels and the formerly Marxist government. The conflict killed or maimed 1 million people and reduced the economy to one of the world's poorest.
Many people sit in nervous limbo, from the squalid shantytowns where refugees ponder returning to abandoned villages to the repainted colonial hotels where foreign businessmen weigh potential tourism and trade investments.
``I hope the elections mean better times,'' says Shabir Youssef, a Maputo cafe owner who, like more than a million refugees, has returned from a decade of exile hoping to rebuild a new life. ``But who knows what will happen? We are prepared for the worst.''
Troubling him are the similarities Mozambique shares with Angola. Both are former Portuguese colonies. Both gained independence in 1975 and became theaters of cold-war confrontation between superpower proxies. The peace accords ending those wars were similar. And after Angola's first democratic elections in 1992, the rebels rejected as fraudulent their defeat and returned to arms.
Prompting unease among the many of the 6.4 million registered voters, Afonso Dhlakama, leader of the formerly rebel Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance Movement), has stated that only fraud will rob him of victory. And diplomats report thousands of weapons hidden in the bush.
But Mozambique, United Nations monitors say, will be different from Angola.
They say Mozambicans are truly weary of war; 7,000 UN peacekeepers and 2,400 international observers will oversee voting in remote areas; and the demise of South Africa's apartheid government will make it hard for right-wing South Africans to resume their erstwhile support of Renamo.
President Joaquim Chissano, widely expected to win the vote, had consistently rejected any kind of power sharing. But yesterday he said he would consider offering Mr. Dhlakama a government post in the new government.
President Chissano, whose Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) has tenaciously clung to power since 1975 independence, has said he has severe doubts about Dhlakama's willingness to cooperate within a future cabinet.
``I think both sides can negotiate,'' said United States Ambassador Dennis Jett, who described himself as ``cautiously optimistic'' about the aftermath of the elections. But, he added, ``it is unreasonable to expect complete harmony.''
Aldo Ajello, the Italian UN special envoy who has been overseeing the delicate transition to peace, said Dhlakama assured him on Saturday that he would accept a verdict by international observers on the vote. ``There is no possibility of his going back to war. He has confirmed today even if he loses and the elections are judged free and fair, he will not go back to war. I trust him.''
Dhlakama himself denied intending to return to fighting. ``Go back to war? No! Never!,'' he told reporters after meeting Mr. Ajello to discuss his fears.
Ajello said he thought widespread fraud would be unlikely, but conceded the difficulties of the independent National Election Commission (CNE) in organizing voter education and polls in a country where 75 percent of the 16 million people cannot read or write, and roads are mined or wrecked. Many areas are accessible only by helicopter and people lack batteries to listen to radio broadcasts.
Logistical problems have also made it difficult to hold reliable opinion polls. The common wisdom is that Renamo will do well in the race for the 250-seat parliament in the populous north and center where it held territory during the war, and Frelimo will maintain its strongholds in the south.
Campaign platforms are blurred - both parties say they believe in peace and want to revive the agriculture-based economy where the per capita gross domestic product is less than $70 a year and prices can rise as much as 100 percent a month. Ten other presidential candidates and 12 parties and coalitions are expected to make only a small showing.
Renamo's wartime notoriety for mutilating its victims - it was once accused by the US State Department of atrocities against civilians - has cost it some popularity.
``Killers, killers,'' shouted angry Frelimo supporters who threw stones at Dhlakama's motorcade as it made its final campaign drive through Maputo on Saturday. Few votes were won when Renamo supporters ran into the crowd and beat their hecklers with sticks.
But for other Mozambicans, such as Marcial Angurete, who fought for the government Army for 10 years, Frelimo has failed to deliver on its promises. Wounded by two bullets in the leg, unable to find work, the trained electrician resents the fancy cars and villas of rich Felimo officials. ``I suffered a lot and received no compensation. Now it's time to see if another party can provide me a better life.''
Diplomats say the disillusionment of Angurete and 70,000 other demobilized fighters from both sides may auger well for peace.
Although thousands of former soldiers rampaged and rioted over the past year across the country, their complaints were about delays in demobilization and re-integration into civilian life.