Published: April 2 2005
Covering Zimbabwe's parliamentary election over the past week, I have been gripped by unsettling bouts of déjà vu.
There are the hard-eyed plainclothes intelligence men who follow my movements as I enter and leave my hotel. There are the stacks of worthless banknotes adorned with power plants and dams, making for restaurant and bar bills that run into the tens of thousands of Zimbabwean dollars.
There is the weary-looking leader of two-and-a-half decades who concocts fanciful conspiracy theories to explain away his country's problems. This is, Robert Mugabe insists, an "anti-Blair election", as if the British prime minister had plotted Zimbabwe's current predicament over tea with Cherie at 10 Downing Street. Even the depressing purple chairs at the Harare International Convention Centre, apparently last upholstered in the 1970s, give me twinges of nostalgia.
Before moving to Africa two years ago, I lived and worked in eastern Europe for more than 10 years. I was in Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Ukraine at various points before and after their abrupt political transitions in 1989, 2001 and 2004. I witnessed the euphoria, disappointments and rewards that come with the transition to democratic rule. I know that running a repressive state is costly, and that without a strong economy or rich foreign patrons - neither of which Zimbabwe has - it is unsustainable.
So, sitting at a dull Zimbabwe electoral commission press conference or listening to President Mugabe rail against Mr Blair, George W. Bush and Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's opposition leader, I must suppress the urge to shout out: "Subverting the will of the people is futile!" Or: "It's the economy, stupid!" Or: "Children belong in school, not at political rallies!"
Of course I do not, as I am here - unusually - with about 300 other foreign journalists at the invitation of the Zimbabwean government. The information ministry has given me a snazzy elections tote bag and politely told me I must leave the country by April 6. This is a rare chance to witness Zimbabwean political theatre up close. Whether this year's election proves a drama or another stage-managed farce, like the elections of 2000 and 2002, remains to be seen.
Early reports, and my own observations, suggest this year's vote was mercifully free of violence, but rigged. Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and watchdog groups began raising the alarm weeks ago about a cooked voters' roll, intimidation of voters and the manipulation of food aid to political ends. International observers, and perhaps the Zimbabwean people, will weigh in during the days to come.
Taking a journalistic punt on election day, I drove down the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway north-east from Harare into Mashonaland West, a stronghold of the president's Zanu-PF party. Near Zvimba, where he was born and still has a house, I visited a polling station on a commercial farm recently acquired by the province's governor.
The tense atmosphere was unlike any I had ever seen: a boom gate blocked the way and a suspicious official took down my details before letting me in. Inside I met with the MDC's local campaign manager, who told me that Zanu-PF youths - the party's feared "green bombers" - had been demanding names and other details of voters outside polling stations around the province.
Yesterday, as official results trickled in, the MDC and foreign observers began speaking of massive fraud in the tallying of votes, and of tens of thousands of voters turned away from the polls.
If practising journalism in eastern Europe taught me anything, it is the futility of predicting political tipping-points, or the quality of what follows. Serbs took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in 1997 but it took them four more years to topple Slobodan Milosevic. Romanians saw off Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 in a supposed people-power revolution later revealed to be an internal party putsch.
That same year, Poland's communists and Solidarity movement set a gold standard for transition by hammering out a peaceful, if imperfect, roundtable political settlement. Zimbabwe could surprise us yet by changing power soon but no one can say whether it will come peacefully, violently or through mass protest.
Zimbabwe has a civil society as strong as eastern Europe's, with the added attribute of a British-modelled - if much debased - justice system. The MDC, for all its failings, is one of Africa's best organised opposition parties. Yet Zanu-PF could prove an intransigent partner and, when his time comes, Mugabe may not go quietly. At a rally this week south of Harare I stood within two metres of him as he shook his fist in the party salute. (I repressed an urge to return it.) The event was short of substance, resting mostly on vilification of the MDC and Britain. Zanu-PF, which never really demobilised after the Rhodesian war, has a culture of unabashed violence and bullying.
But repressive leaders are often their weakest when they look most menacing. The two Zanu rallies I was at were attended by just a few thousand people, despite gifts of computers and the bus transport helpfully arranged for many attendees.
The president was a darling of the west in Zimbabwe's optimistic first post-independence years and I suspect his anti-western rants could disguise a touching desire to re-enter the international fold. I think his time is running out. When it comes, I fervently hope he goes peacefully.
The writer is the FT's Johannesburg bureau chief