HARARE, Zimbabwe — The word is out: The Spar supermarket has bread at only $7-million a loaf. People rush to buy, 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 American cents, more than a teacher makes in a week. "How can we afford to eat that?" a woman exclaims.
Daily scenes of struggle with the world's highest inflation are the dark backdrop to an election Saturday in which Robert Mugabe is fighting to prolong his 28-year-old presidency, outpolled by his main opponent and 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.
People long cowed into silence by Mugabe's strong-arm methods are speaking openly against him, seeing the election as a last hope for the country where inflation is more than 100,000 percent a year.
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.
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 this Montana-sized country in southern Africa. 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 — he led guerrillas in a seven-year war to end white rule in what was then Rhodesia — 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 succeed and give Mugabe a measure of respectability.
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.