Wisps of democracy in Zimbabwe

The Mugabe-run African nation holds parliamentary elections on March 31.

With hands on hips and brow knit tight, Zimbabwean parliamentary hopeful Ian Kay stands on a large granite outcropping, hoping for a miracle - or at least some sunshine.

A cold driving rain has begun drenching Mr. Kay and about 600 supporters, just as the only major rally of his entire campaign is about to kick off. It could ruin weeks of work: Holding organizational meetings in caves to avoid police, cajoling skittish friends into lending him trucks despite probable harassment by ruling-party officials, and trying to outwit partisan thugs who rip down his posters moments after they're put up.

Welcome to campaigning in an "outpost of tyranny." The US calls Zimbabwe one of the world's least democratic nations. Yet the fact that Kay is holding the rally at all symbolizes a sudden openness by the government that's taking people here by surprise. Whether the thaw - just weeks before March 31 parliamentary elections - is more than superficial will be decided in key districts like Kay's.

"This is turning out to be a much more interesting election than we expected," says a Western diplomat in the capital. Still, he adds, "there's no question the electoral playing field is heavily tilted toward the ruling party."

White vs. black

Originally, Kay's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, had been hoping just to hold onto the 57 seats it won in 2000 in the 150-member parliament. But with the new openness, they are hoping for more, and winning tougher race's like Kay's.

The race pits Kay - a white man who was chased off his large commercial farm in 2002 during Zimbabwe's controversial land-reform program - against the nation's black defense minister, Sidney Sekeramayi, who is also the former head of Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organization.

Kay is confident he's got more supporters than Mr. Sekeramayi. But that's hardly the only issue. This district is infamous for election violence. In 2000, the MDC candidate was run out of town and his house torched. His supporters were allegedly tortured at ruling party headquarters. It's no surprise that when the MDC tried to stage a rally here, not a single person showed up. Even still, Sekeramayi won by only 63 votes.

So MDC backers were amazed at the size of the recent rally. A black unemployed former farm manager named Edward exults: "To have this rally here - wow. This is real change." Eventually the rain stops and chanting and speeches start. "Chinja, chinja," the ebullient crowd yells, using the word for "change."

But Kay knows that what really matters is the reaction of the 700 or so people standing quietly about 50 yards away. These are the town's swing voters.

They're lined up on the other side of a road, willing only to watch from afar. Police 4x4s and a band of ruling-party youths roll slowly up and down the road. "This is a small town," Edward explains. "If people see you at an MDC rally you could be in trouble."

Kay says the MDC's biggest challenge is the residue of fear from 2000 - and how the ruling ZANU-PF party could manipulate it. "All they need is one public display of violence, and you've got 2,000 to 3,000 people hiding in corners," he says.

But for Kay, the presence of the "swing voters" validates holding the rally in the open, so people could watch without having to commit. He says his advisers had been urging him to have it in the local stadium, "But I just knew people wouldn't be willing to risk walking into a public building," he says.

Such tactical challenges have been constant. Kay has held three meetings in caves to avoid being arrested for contravening the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which restricts freedom of association and which police use to prevent opposition meetings.

Also, a few days before the rally, his team put up hundreds of campaign posters at midnight. By dawn they'd been ripped down, he suspects, by young ZANU-PF supporters. Next time he tried putting posters up at dawn. By 7 a.m. they were gone.

But with his wife and two grown sons helping out with campaign logistics, Kay perseveres. At the rally, his family jumps and waves along with the chants. He's clearly not afraid of what might happen to him. During the days when their farm was taken, Kay was once beaten up badly - but refused to leave the country.

Election improvements

To be sure, there will be efforts to curb fraud in this election: transparent ballot boxes, more polling stations, and just one day - not two - for voting. Foreign election monitors will be present, though observers from the US and Europe have pointedly not been invited.

"This election will be freer and fairer than almost any in Zimbabwe's history - and many in Africa and the world," says Eddison Zvobgo, Jr., a ZANU-PF member. And compared to the harsh violence that surrounded other recent elections, this campaign has been quite peaceful.

The globally isolated government may have encouraged a more open climate, observers say, because it seeks more international legitimacy. Recent ZANU-PF infighting may have also distracted it.

And the turmoil that surrounded seizures by blacks of white-owned land a few years ago has subsided somewhat.

But Kay and others worry the openness is really a government ploy. For instance, the number of voting stations in his district will jump to 90, from 50 in the last election. That means officials will be able to pinpoint opposition enclaves and single the areas out for possible punishment.

As the rally ends, he stays long into the afternoon, making sure those supporters who'd been trucked to the event get home safely.

"Otherwise," he says, "there'll be trouble tonight."

Asked why he does it at all, he says of himself and his fellow Zimbabweans: "We're worth fighting for."

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