The word is out: The Spar supermarket has bread at only $7 million a loaf. People rush to the shelf duly marked $7 million, but by the time they reach the till with their hyper-inflated Zimbabwean dollars, the price is up to $25 million.
That equals just 62 U.S. cents, more than a teacher makes in a week. "How can we afford to eat that?" a woman exclaims. Customers leave their loaves at the counter and walk out with their brick-sized bundles of bank notes, angry and disconsolate.
Daily scenes like this are the dark backdrop to an election Saturday in which Robert Mugabe is fighting to prolong his 28-year-old presidency. He is accused of laying elaborate plans to rig the vote.
On 84-year-old Mugabe's watch, the country has collapsed from food exporter to being dependent on international food handouts and money sent home by many of the 5 million people — more than a third of the population — who have fled Zimbabwe.
"This election is about survival ... about empty stomachs and health and education that we are not getting for our families," said Elizabeth Chaibvu, a member of the Feminist Political Education Project.
People long cowed into silence by Mugabe's strong-arm methods are speaking openly against their leader, seeing the election as a last hope for the country where inflation is over 100,000 percent a year, by far the highest in the world.
But Mugabe is accused of stacking the decks against his opponents, redistricting voting constituencies, buying votes with gifts such as tractors, and delivering state-subsidized food only to his party supporters.
"Zimbabweans aren't free to vote for the candidates of their choice," New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week.
'Opposition supporters intimidated'
Amnesty International alleged "intimidation, harassment and violence against perceived supporters of opposition candidates, with many in rural regions fearful that there will be retribution after the elections."
The election is about more than just Zimbabwe. Many other African leaders, seeking in varying degrees to become democratic and put the days of coups and strongmen behind them, are torn about how to deal with Mugabe.
They cannot ignore Mugabe's past as an icon of resistance to colonial rule, and they applaud when he claims that "the West still negates our sovereignties, by way of control of our resources, in the process making us mere chattels in our own lands."
While the West has imposed limited sanctions, African governments have refrained from acting against Mugabe. Instead, led by neighboring South Africa, they have sought to help make the election a success and give Mugabe a measure of respectability.
Rival beaten by police
The fact that this fourth contested presidential election is going ahead, with multiple candidates, is a tribute to Zimbabweans' democratic sinew, epitomized by Mugabe's main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. The 55-year-old trade unionist has dealt Mugabe past electoral humiliations, and his battered face was flashed around the world after he was severely beaten by police last year.
Also running against him is Simba Makoni, 58, a former finance minister and member of Mugabe's politburo until he was expelled for daring to challenge the leader. Makoni's last-minute defection is a sign of growing dissent within Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union party. But while he could take support from Mugabe, Makoni also could divide the opposition vote.
An opinion poll of 1,693 people conducted two weeks ago by the Mass Public Opinion Institute, run by Professor Eldred Masunungure of the University of Zimbabwe, gives Tsvangirai 28 percent of the vote, Mugabe 20 percent and Makoni 9 percent. The poll gave a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The poll is far from definitive, because the remainder refused to answer, were undecided or didn't intend to vote. A defiant Mugabe vowed this week that the opposition "never, never, ever" will govern Zimbabwe, but Masunungure says he will have a hard time winning the simple majority needed to avoid a run-off, provided the vote is fair.
According to independent monitors, civil societies and church groups, the electoral roll is riddled with ghost voters, electoral boundaries favor Mugabe's rural power base, and there are too few urban polling stations to handle the expected crush. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is stacked with former and current military personnel loyal to Mugabe.
Police and thugs from the youth wing of Mugabe's party routinely intimidate, arrest and beat opposition party members and supporters.
Tsvangirai told a rally Sunday that he expects Mugabe to "engage in every trick in the book," and is demanding the Electoral Commission address reports that it printed 9 million ballots for 5.9 million registered voters.
Mugabe's government also is seeking to control what is said about the elections. Most of the 300 international journalists who applied for accreditation have been refused, and chief government spokesman George Charamba has warned that those who manage to cover the election from inside Zimbabwe will be under constant surveillance.
The Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa condemned the "near-blanket denial of accreditation" and noted that "rare approvals were given according to race or nationality."
"When the government rejects all fears of a rigged election, why is it trying to shield these elections from the vast majority of professional journalists?" the association asked.
Western election monitors are barred, and only delegates from "friendly" countries such as Iran, China, Russia and Libya are invited. The Southern African Development Community Lawyers Association complained Thursday that it had not been given accreditation to observe.
Also invited is a delegation from the Southern African Development Community, the bloc that appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate in Zimbabwe. Mbeki, criticized for a policy of "quiet diplomacy" many see as encouraging Mugabe's intransigence, claims he successfully negotiated an agreement for free and fair elections to be held.
Tsvangirai's party rejects "suggestions that our participation in this election is proof of the success of the SADC. It is possibly proof of the failure of that process."
Despite the widely alleged irregularities, the SADC observer mission in Zimbabwe says everything is in place for a free vote.
War ended white rule
Mugabe led a guerrilla movement that fought a seven-year war to end white rule in what was then Rhodesia and bring independent Zimbabwe into being in 1980. Then, Mugabe was hailed for his conciliatory attitude to the white minority, the preservation of democratic and legal structures inherited from the British, and the introduction of education and health care for all.
But few have benefited and millions suffer from Mugabe's most ambitious project to reverse the colonial legacy — the often violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms that destroyed the country's agricultural base. Most whites have since been driven off their farms along with farm laborers and their families numbering more than 1 million people.
Some 5,000 white farmers owned 80 percent of Zimbabwe's best agricultural land at independence — an injustice that Britain promised to remedy by buying land on a willing seller-willing buyer basis. But Britain halted its program, charging most land was going not to landless peasants but to Mugabe's relatives and cronies.