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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Zimbabwe holds important elections on Saturday. The Southern African nation has only had one president since it became independent in 1980. He is Robert Mugabe, and he has grown only more authoritarian over the years. He's facing his most serious challenge ever.

The two strongest presidential contenders accused Mugabe of destroying the economy, which is suffering from hyperinflation, poverty and high unemployment.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The nearly six million eligible voters have seen their country transformed over the past decade from the regional bread basket and economic jewel in Southern Africa's crown to a Zimbabwe in economic meltdown.

Much of the blame is heaped on President Robert Mugabe. He's 84, and led Zimbabwe to independence from Britain in 1980. But he is now blamed by his critics at home and abroad for ruinous policies that have brought his country to its knees.

Mugabe, in turn, says sanctions imposed by a meddlesome former colonizer and other hostile Western nations ganging up with the opposition are responsible for Zimbabwe's current woes.

President ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): The West still negates our sovereignty by way of control of our resources, in the process making us mere chattels in our own land.

QUIST-ARCTON: But it's not just the economic crisis, soaring food prices and what are considered Mugabe's disastrous land-reform policies - ceasing productive white-owned farms that left thousands of black Zimbabwean farm workers out of a job - Mugabe is also accused of oppressing political adversaries and rigging Saturday's vote.

Human Rights Watch released a report last week, concluding that there was very little chance of proper elections in Zimbabwe. The New York-based advocacy group said the government had failed to meet its democratic obligations, and that Zimbabweans were not free to vote for candidates of their choice.

Researcher Tiseke Kasambala.

Ms. TISEKE KASAMBALA (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): We have documented numerous abuses, including incidents of political intimidation and violence, biased media access in terms of political coverage of the campaigning periods, and numerous flaws in the electoral process which precludes the possibility of a free and fair election taking place in Zimbabwe.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mugabe's government dismissed the report, saying it was a mere reflection of what Western countries wanted to hear about Zimbabwe and not the reality.

(Soundbite of rally)

Unidentified Man: A new beginning…

Unidentified Group: Zimbabwe.

Unidentified Man: Morgan Tsvangirai.

QUIST-ARCTON: Meet presidential contender Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. He's Mugabe's long-time rival and raised similar concerns about the vote during a weekend campaign rally.

Mr. MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Presidential Candidate, Movement for Democratic Change): The goal is in sight, and we expect the enemies of justice to engage in every trick in the book. We are ready for them, all of us.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TSVANGIRAI: We will witness the last gust of the dictatorship.

QUIST-ARCTON: Mugabe has called Tsvangirai a puppet of the West, and dismissed his latest challenger and erstwhile finance minister, Simba Makoni, as a political prostitute. Both candidates say getting rid of Robert Mugabe and reviving Zimbabwe's economy are a priority. But Tsvangirai has called Makoni old wine in a new bottle.

With his dramatic last-minute defection from the governing party, Makoni says he represents change.

Mr. SIMBA MAKONI (Former Zimbabwe Finance Minister): I share the agony and anguish of all citizens over the extreme hardships that we have all endured for nearly 10 years now. I also share the widely held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIST-ARCTON: But Robert Mugabe remains defiant. Campaigning for a sixth term in office, he punched his fist in the air, the party symbol of the continuing struggle. Africa's veteran president vowed that the opposition would never take power in Zimbabwe during his lifetime.

(Soundbite of rally)

Pres. MUGABE: That will never happen…

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. MUGABE: …as long we are still alive (speaking in foreign language).

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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