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Zimbabwe voters will go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a president

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's election time in Zimbabwe. And the southern African nation's ruling party, ZANU-PF, has been accused of using violence and other intimidation tactics on opposition figures and critics. All this at a time when the country is still dealing with one of the world's highest rates of inflation. Tendai Marima reports from the capital, Harare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TENDAI MARIMA, BYLINE: A crowd of thousands spill over the bleached grass of Robert Mugabe Square at a ZANU-PF rally in central Harare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MARIMA: The music, the rousing speeches, the party faithful chants...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MARIMA: And the fears of voter intimidation, crackdowns on opposition critics and violence. Election season has a very familiar pattern for many here in Zimbabwe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIMA: When people vote in Wednesday's closely contested election for a new president, councilors and members of parliament, there are low expectations that the results will be fair despite what the president says to the crowd at this rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMERSON MNANGAGWA: We in ZANU-PF will not accept anyone to come and teach us democracy.

MARIMA: Eighty-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa is the former ally of longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe. The presidential race is fundamentally a contest between Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change Party. If there is no outright winner in the presidential contest, a runoff will be held on the 2nd of October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MNANGAGWA: We are a constitutional democracy. We are year in, year out entrenching constitutionalism and democracy.

MARIMA: Fine words, but the cautious optimism that existed after Mnangagwa managed to unseat Mugabe in a slow-motion coup in 2017 has all but disappeared now, and with it, the hopes of improving a shattered economy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIMA: Carrots, tomatoes, onions and collard greens are piled on stalls in this market in the southern city of Bulawayo. Vendors like Thomas Tshuma hawk their wares. For most, the informal economy is the only way to survive here in Zimbabwe.

THOMAS TSHUMA: We are now too many in the streets, we are now too many. There is no future. We need some changes. Things must change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Ndebele).

MARIMA: Vegetables are not the only product on sale here. This is a market that literally throws bad money after good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Ndebele).

MARIMA: Speaking in the local language, Ndebele, a trader with a megaphone encourages people to sell their old, torn U.S. dollars. He'll then repair them with glue and recirculate them at a profit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Ndebele).

MARIMA: This is the land of billion-percent inflation, the land of the $100 trillion Zimbabwe bill where the local currency, the Zimbabwe dollar, was deemed so worthless, the U.S. dollar replaced it at one point. After decades of disastrous economic policies under Mugabe, Mnangagwa promised a reversal of fortunes to little effect.

DOREEN CHIGUMBU: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIMA: Doreen Chigumbu tells me she has been working in this market for over 10 years.

CHIGUMBU: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIMA: "It's hard to tell where we are going," she tells me, "but I don't see any hope considering that there's little investment here in Zimbabwe. People just don't have the hard cash, even here at the market."

(CHEERING)

MARIMA: At the opposition party's manifesto launch, their presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, talks of restoring Zimbabwe's fortunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON CHAMISA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIMA: This was one of the only major rallies the party has been allowed to hold during the campaign. Many have been blocked by the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAMISA: Zimbabweans, I want to thank you all for the love. We thank you. God bless you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language).

MARIMA: As opposition leader, 45-year-old pastor and lawyer Chamisa knows he faces a huge challenge...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language).

MARIMA: The challenge of unseating ZANU-PF, a party that has dominated Zimbabwean politics for over 40 years. His opponent, President Mnangagwa, is known as the crocodile for his political cunning. And that crocodile wants another bite of power.

For NPR News, I'm Tendai Marima in Harare, Zimbabwe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "GOLDEN HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tendi Marima