MASVINGO, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe is urging Zimbabweans to 'Vote For The Fist'.
His campaign posters -- portraits of Mugabe wearing an olive green military-type shirt and holding a clenched fist aloft -- reflect his hard-line politics, and remind voters of the crack troops who have helped keep him in power for 28 years.
Mugabe is again counting on his army of war veterans and ruling party youth brigades, known as "green bombers" because of the military-style clothes they wear, to crank up support in his rural power base ahead of the March 29 vote.
The veteran leader is facing his strongest challenge in nearly three decades because of defections by senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials and a deepening economic crisis.
The opposition charges that the "green bombers," war veterans and some members of the Zimbabwean army were behind violent campaigns that helped Mugabe's party retain power in elections in 2000 and 2002. Mugabe denies the allegations.
This week, Human Rights Watch said Mugabe's supporters, including police and central intelligence, had used violence in the run-up to this month's poll to intimidate opponents, undermining chances of a fair vote.
ZANU-PF denies its militant supporters are guilty of intimidation but Zimbabwean rights activists say they have documented years of systematic violence.
"We have heard some horror stories. In 2000 and 2002 ... we had people being dragged out of buses, after being identified as opposition activists, and getting assaulted with clubs and machetes," said an official with Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum.
"We had cases of people being stabbed by mobs at open markets, and ... youth brigades moving around in large groups, disrupting opposition rallies, singing war songs and sowing fear in townships and villages," said the official, who did not want to be named.
"Fortunately, it's not happening at the same level this time round. But the fear remains," he added.
Mugabe, an 84-year-old former guerrilla leader, is facing a fierce fight from ex-ally Simba Makoni and longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai in his bid for another five-year term.
Both Makoni, a former finance minister, and Tsvangirai, who heads the main faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), say Mugabe has ruined Zimbabwe's economy.
Mugabe says the mounting problems Zimbabweans are battling, including food and fuel shortages and the highest inflation in the world, are a result of sanctions imposed by Western powers.
"They want to turn back this country into a British colony again, and I urge you to demonstrate to the world again that their chosen puppets have no support and will never rule this country," Mugabe said at a rally in southern Zimbabwe.
The ZANU-PF party planted its roots in rural areas -- where at least 60 percent of Zimbabwe's population lives -- during the 1970s war for independence from Britain and left behind a mixture of military and civilian structures.
Critics say that for some of Mugabe's loyalists, the image of their leader's clenched fist is still a call to war.
At least 50,000 people died during the 1970s war and ruling party militants constantly remind voters that they will go back to the bush if ZANU-PF loses power.
Members of the youth brigades who act as security guards at ZANU-PF rallies are seen in the countryside as the party's eyes, ears -- and fists. Critics say the "green bombers," graduates of a national youth service, have become a private party militia.
"Although it is wearing off, I think there is still a pervasive sense of fear of the party, of youth brigades, the war veterans, the ZANU-PF militants," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
"There are some notable cracks and divisions in their ranks now, but these people have kept ZANU-PF structures alive despite the economic crisis," he added.
Analysts say Mugabe, who is accused of rigging previous elections, is keen to win regional endorsement of this year's poll as free and fair, and has kept ZANU-PF militants on a short leash. But critics maintain that many of the tens of thousands of people turning up at his rallies do so out of fear.
In the past few weeks, a combative Mugabe has traveled to his traditional rural strongholds to drum up support as his rivals pile pressure on him, largely in urban areas where people are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis.
Zimbabwe's inflation rate is over 100,000 percent, and its towns are suffering severe water, power and transport shortages and choking on overflowing sewers.
The message his supporters are taking to rural voters has not changed since the last vote in 2005: they say ZANU-PF is the only trustworthy custodian of black interests and that the opposition is made up of stooges sponsored by Britain and ZANU-PF's Western enemies.
Mugabe is also trying to woo voters with massive government handouts of farm equipment, including tractors and ox-drawn ploughs meant to support his controversial land reforms which included confiscating land from white farmers.
In the countryside, villagers privately say life has become harder but there is little overt criticism of the government.
And although this year's election campaign has been relatively peaceful, opposition leader Tsvangirai, who was beaten up by security forces at a rally last year, says "for Mugabe, political thuggery is always an option."
In a response to Mugabe's "vote for the fist" campaign, Tsvangirai's MDC said in a newspaper advert: "The war is over. We cannot feed people with clenched fists."
The other challenger, Makoni, has been even more direct.
"Don't vote for the fist. The fist has become a hammer smashing the country."
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)
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