ON the surface, Zimbabwe's fourth presidential election since 1980 is a sign of democracy. The reality is that this weekend's election is a foregone conclusion: President Robert Mugabe is virtually certain to win a fourth five-year term.
Just 16 years ago, Zimbabwe was the great hope for a strong multiparty democracy in southern Africa. Then the country was surrounded by one-party states and strongman rulers in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, while apartheid reigned in South Africa. Zimbabwe was a nation with an elected leadership that held promise.
But Mr. Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have virtually turned the country into a one-party state, while the country's neighbors have surged forward with multiparty systems.
Zimbabwe's economy has also deteriorated during Mugabe's rule. The economy has grown at only about 2 percent a year for the past 10 years while the population has grown at close to a 3 percent annual rate. Unemployment, estimated at about 50 percent, is up from about 30 percent when Mugabe came to power in 1980.
''We Zimbabweans used to be proud of what we had,'' says John Makumbe, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. ''People in southern Africa used to look up to us. Now they are disgusted. It's nothing more than a tragedy.''
After a seven-year guerrilla war against the white-ruled government that dominated the country, then known as Rhodesia, in the 1970s, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF slowly gained more power, effectively shutting off any real opposition.
Since 1980, ZANU-PF, which now controls 147 of 150 seats in parliament, has succeeded in amending the Zimbabwean Constitution 13 times. Each amendment is designed to strengthen the ruling party, according to Professor Makumbe.
ZANU-PF also has access to the state coffers during election years, while the opposition must fund its own campaigns.
The ZANU-PF's intelligence apparatus, the feared Central Intelligence Organization, has been so effective that it apparently infiltrated at least one of the opposition parties.
Former opposition candidate the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, leader of the ZANU-Ndongo Party, is currently on bail for plotting the assassination of Mugabe. On Monday, Mr. Sithole produced a document that, if authentic, proves the CIO framed him for plotting the assassination. On Tuesday, he announced he had enough and opted out of the election.
Given the Zimbabwean opposition's sorry state - Sithole lacks a telephone, is in poor health, and had campaigned without publicly announcing his whereabouts - many here wonder why Mugabe and the CIO would waste time on him.
''The CIO mobilized for Sithole just so they could muster an opposition for Mugabe,'' Makumbe says. ''Otherwise this whole thing would have been a joke.''
Now, with Sithole's departure, only Bishop Abel Muzorewa of the United Parties stands in Mugabe's way. Bishop Muzorewa's party is also disorganized.
Meanwhile, around the capital, Harare, anti-Mugabe voices ring loud. Brothers Tanashe and Zundewa Muzondiwa fret over the lack of jobs.
''This government is just bad, bad,'' says Tanashe. ''Why should I go to school? My brother doesn't work, none of his friends work. But Mugabe and all his boys are rich.''
It is in the rural areas where Mugabe enjoys his strongest support. It's partly because food aid was delivered here for years, but also because many rural Zimbabweans were involved in the struggle against the white-ruled government.
Beard Chaikapa, a veteran of the war, lives with his family on their farm in Somabe, north of the capital. Recently, the family sat in a circle feasting on sweet pumpkin, tomatoes, and corn. ''Why should I vote for change?'' Mr. Chaikapa asks. ''We've got all we need here. I hope [Mugabe] is my president the rest of my life.''