KWAME HOLMAN: When the African nation of Zimbabwe was born 22 years ago, Robert Mugabe was its much-celebrated public face; a symbol of black liberation from white minority rule.
But today, as Mugabe seeks a third presidential term in elections this weekend, opponents and some foreign leaders say he has become the dictator. They accuse the 78-year-old leader of stifling dissent through terror and intimidation, and trying to rig the election. In Zimbabwe's early days of self-rule, the one-time Marxist guerrilla fighter won praise for increasing literacy and expanding the country's rich agricultural economy.
In recent years, however, discontent has grown rapidly among Zimbabwe's 12 million people, as has political violence. In the last two years, mobs of black citizens-- many of them veterans of the guerrilla war against the white leaders of then-Rhodesia-- have attacked and seized white-owned farms, killing at least seven farmers. The attackers say the government has been slow to redistribute the best soil, which still largely belongs to whites, and which Mugabe long ago promised to turn over to the veterans. Mugabe has endorsed the land seizures, and at times joined the angry rhetoric against the 1% white population.
PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe: Our present state of mind is that you are now our enemies because you really have behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe, that we are full of anger because... you really have behaved as though enemies. Our entire community is angry, and this is why the war veterans are seizing land.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's economy has crumbled; food lines are long, three of five workers are jobless, and prices of goods are now doubling every year. The main opposition candidate, 49-year-old Morgan Tsvangirai, is trying to capitalize on that dissatisfaction. The former trade unionist is Mugabe's toughest-ever political opponent.
MORGAN TSVANGIRAI, Opposition Candidate: People's victory at this weekend's elections is now certain. The people will vote for change. They'll vote for answers to the burning issues of the day-- that is starvation, food shortages, collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, joblessness, ever- increasing prices of foodstuffs and other basic commodities, and the lawlessness in the country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tsvangirai leads in most opinion polls, but he says he's worried Mugabe will try to steal the election. Critics say Mugabe's government has forced police officers to support the incumbent, imposed new election rules designed to disenfranchise opposition supporters, and tortured and killed members of the opposition party.
TAFADZWA MUSEKIWA, Opposition MDC Party: It was serious for five minutes; was A... was A... was a light... it was raining stones in my house.
MORGAN TSVANGIRAI, Opposition Candidate: Let me just say that when we talk about violence, we talk about state-sponsored violence, and there is no doubt that this violence is coming from the state.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last month, after Mugabe's government expelled the European Union's chief election observer, the E.U. promptly imposed a travel ban on Zimbabwe's political leaders. Criticism of the election process also has come from Washington, which has banned Mugabe from entering the U.S., and from the United Nations Secretary-General.
KOFI ANNAN, Secretary-General, United Nations: But I would appeal to the government of Zimbabwe not to interfere with the process and allow the people of that country to express themselves freely and willingly at the next elections.
KWAME HOLMAN: For his part, Mugabe has labeled Tsvangarai a pawn of what he calls "European colonialists," and he says world leaders have ignored charges of treason against Tsvangarai. State police say the opposition candidate once plotted to assassinate Mugabe. Tsvangarai denies the charges. A conviction could carry the death penalty.
PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe: Americans, they are not looking at the situation and at the case as it develops. No, they want to defend Tsvangirai.
KWAME HOLMAN: As the two men held their final rallies today, there were increasing predictions that violence could erupt no matter who wins the vote count. Mugabe's government reportedly has brought hundreds of soldiers home from the civil war in the Congo next door to prepare for violence in the streets.
If Mugabe wins, there's fear of a mass uprising and perhaps civil war.
And if Mugabe loses, his opponents say he may refuse to step down-- another scenario for unrest. Zimbabweans will vote tomorrow and Sunday.
The counting starts Monday morning.