What is happening in Zimbabwe is a major election loss for Robert Mugabe, who is now scrambling to rig the vote counting.

In previous elections, Mugabe usually sailed easily into power by his large rural majority.

This time, the majority is not there in many rural areas, either because voters stayed home or because the villages now have relatives living there who lost jobs and homes in Mugabe’s notorious “operation cleanup”, which leveled shops and houses in suburban towns that opposed him, under the guise of destroying black market shops.

Villagers who once saw prosperity now are living hand to mouth, at a substinence level like their ancestors. If the rains come, there will be Sadza, but no meat or small luxuries, unless relatives from outside the country send money. But foreign exchange has to be exchanged at the government’s rate, which is lower than the black market exchange price, and with inflation, the Zim currancy quickly loses it’s value.

Even then, food is hard to find except on the black market–Mugabe has even shut down the ability to take a bus and buy food in Beitbridge (South Africa) with one’s foreign exchange.

So villagers might not be as willing to vote for Mugabe as they were in the past. But they might be afraid of voting against them. So the real question of who is being backed by rural voters is: How many stayed home?

Mugabe has tried to keep a lid on the election. Reporters are not allowed, opposition leaders are under threat of beatings and arrest, and advertising by opposition party is banned by the state controlled press.

Even the internet is watched. That hasn’t stopped the opposition from blogging, often with the help of the diaspora in South Africa and in the UK. For example, if you have a story to let out, get an email to Rev Stig and he’ll get the story out on one of his many blogs. And Sokwanele blog is keeping a tab on the election results HERE. And there are dozens of sites run by Zimbabweans that are networking to report the news and to unite the opposition. The BBC reports on other bloggers and sites watching the election, who are busy relating rumors and observations from inside Zimbabwe.

What is interesting is that according to the BBC, voting has been fair according to African observers (Mugabe did not allow any western countries to send observers).

But the question is the counting of ballots, not intimidation of the voters, which in previous elections was accomplished by the rural villages understanding a wrong vote could result in their being cut off from food aid.

After early reports showed hints of a landslide for the opposition party, and that several prominent supporters of Mugabe had lost their seats, the reports have slowed. This is very unusual, since in previous elections the reports were counted within hours.

As rumors and celebrations started, we now are hearing reports of police and even Army patrols in the streets of Harare.

The IWPR news site reports that ballot boxes were being stuffed, and that large numbers of pro Mugabe votes were counted in areas devestated and depopulated by “Operation cleanup” that no longer are inhabited.

In a letter to Chiweshe, PAP Election Observer Mission leader Marwick Khumalo said it saw no evidence that there were any residents in Ward 42, which is deserted land with a few wooden sheds, despite voters from that deserted ward being listed on the voters’ roll. The Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe, CCZ, has said whatever the outcome of the results of the general elections, the process will not be a true and legitimate expression of the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe.

There are also rumors of dead people voting, and since the large diaspora (25% of the population) is not allowed to vote, one wonders if someone will pretend to vote for them in their native towns and villages.

Right now, after the first shocking reports on how cities voted against Mugabe, reports are now trickling in…the election center is reporting a close contest, so that one area will be reported as pro Mugabe and the next one anti Mugabe, almost in a pattern suggesting they plan to delay and obscure the true results, making Mugabe a winner by a small margin in order to have him win but not seem to steal the election.

All of this sounds like Marcos’ attempt to steal the vote before the People Power revolution. But back then, teachers who were counting the ballots went crying to western reporters about vote fraud and promptly went into hiding, Cory Aquino hid out in a convent, and General Ramos said he would back her claim–and when Marcos sent the Army to get Ramos, half a million Pinoys went in the streets to stop them.

However, the Philippines has a long history of fighting for freedom, and a firey temper under their easy going culture, whereas in Zimbabwe, the firely Ndebele are traditional enemies of the passive and better educated Mashona tribe. To complicate matters, the educated in Zimbabwe have emigrated to get jobs elsewhere, sending money home to their families, and although the protests of the Zimbabwean diaspora are active, nevertheless, they are not inside the country where they could start demonstrations.

Similarly, Marcos was told by his friend President Reagan it was time to go. And finally, the churches backed the opposition, whereas the churches are split in Zimbabwe whether or not to oppose Mugabe, and the main church leader, Archbishop Ncube, was caught in a government arranged sex sting, essentially neutralizing his moral authority.

The real question now is if Mugabe will steal the election, and things remain deteriorating, or will South Africa take a clue from Reagan and Marcos and tell him it is time to go.

And the major worry is that Zimbabwe will turn into another Kenya. The main difference is that in Kenya, the riots were tribal factions backing different men. In Zimbabwe, the Ndebele oppose Mugabe, but many of the opposition leaders, including Morgan Tsvaigirai, are of the majority Mashona tribe. So unlike Kenya, you do not have danger of a tribal war.

As for the military, Mugabe has given them a lot of gifts over the years, but it is unclear if their loyalty will stand if called on to kill their own people.

However, Mugabe’s vile “Green Bombers”, youth militia, have been known to beat up opposition figures and terrorize individuals in rural areas during past elections, are still a major threat, and may have intimidated enough rural voters to bring Mugabe a victory:

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.

So a lot of things may be going on that are not in the major reports…and no one is expecting Mugabe to do the right thing and just step down.