A skinny political activist here named Cosmas Ndira was already celebrating his party's victory in Thursday's parliamentary elections - and Zimbabweans hadn't even started voting. His optimism Wednesday was even more surprising because his party is opposing President Robert Mugabe, known for his 25-year iron grip over this Southern African nation.
Mr. Ndira isn't the only one. Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change now openly flash their party's salute in many places across the country. And yellow MDC T-shirts abound. MDC candidates have held hundreds of public rallies - a first - and have even had some access to state-controlled media. It's all part of an election campaign that has been relatively calm - despite previous years marred by political oppression, including beatings, and even murders. Ndira himself has been been arrested 19 times and was once beaten so badly he nearly lost his arm.
The MDC has been here before. Three years ago they were poised to sweep Mr. Mugabe out of office, only to have their hopes dashed by election results that they say were rigged. Even now, it's clear the octogenarian president won't go quietly: Some traditional ruling-party tactics have appeared in recent days.
But opposition members and diplomats are hopeful that, win or lose, the election will hasten the end of the Mugabe regime. So for now, "There's jubilation everywhere," Ndira says.
Voters Thursday will choose 120 members of Zimbabwe's 150-seat parliament. Mugabe appoints the remaining 30 seats. The MDC won 57 seats in 2000.
Ndira, an MDC polling-place agent, and others say they have to stay vigilant. The biggest concern, they say, is the number of polling places. It has doubled since the last election to roughly 8,000. Many opponents worry that this will lead to postelection targeting of individual neighborhoods that supported the opposition. And then there's the notoriously flawed voter roll, which the government has long kept highly secret.
One of the ruling party's biggest weapons is "the fact that there are so many polling places," says a Western diplomat. And "the ammunition is the voter list, which has about 750,000 dead people on it."
Other tactics include:
• Supposed MDC posters that urge opposition supporters to boycott the polls on principle - but aim to depress opposition turnout.
• Ruling-party officials reportedly showing binoculars to rural voters, saying they'll be peering at ballots to discover which party they choose.
• Officials also telling rural voters that new transparent ballot boxes, which were brought in by outside election monitors to help fight fraud, will actually betray how voters chose. This has led opposition candidates to carry bottles on the campaign trail to show how folding a ballot three times before inserting it into the bottle prevents peering at ballots.
Ndira and others are worried about the potential for intimidation in rural areas, where education levels are low and access to news is limited. At a rally Monday, Mugabe told the crowd: "All those who will vote for the MDC are traitors."
No matter what happens, most African nations who've sent observers are expected to validate the vote. "There's an implicit deal between the government of Zimbabwe and countries in the region that if Mugabe runs a somewhat better process, he'll get a clean bill of health," says the Western diplomat.
A government spokesman didn't follow through on a request for comment.
European and US observers were pointedly not invited. Russian, Iranian, Libyan, and others were.
Still, opposition optimism pervades. One reason is that it's so clear the government's policies have largely failed. The national economy has shrunk by up to 40 percent in five years, sending inflation as high as 600 percent and unemployment to 70 percent.
Mugabe rails against the West, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and white rule, which ended in 1980 after a brutal independence war. But those memories of colonialism are increasingly overshadowed by current practical concerns. "They're talking about Blair, but we just want jobs," says Thomas, a Harare resident who didn't give his last name.
Ndira, for instance, is an unemployed welder. He says he eats meat only two or three times a month, and corn-based pap and green vegetables the rest of the time. At least he has food. By one estimate 4.8 million Zimbabweans are on the verge of starvation.
It's these kinds of conditions, coupled with the optimism, that have boosted talk of mass protests if the election is blatantly stolen. Mugabe's chief critic, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, said recently of the president: "I hope that people get so disillusioned that they really organize and kick him out by a nonviolent popular mass uprising." Says Ndira in response: "If the MDC doesn't win we will go forth" into the streets.
People have been predicting the demise of autocrats like Mugabe and Cuba's Fidel Castro for years. But, says the diplomat, in a burst of optimism that could all be destroyed by events: "The beginning of the end of the Mugabe era starts Friday."