When we flew out of Harare early on the morning of April 8, there was some reason to believe we would be back soon. In fact, one government official advised us to stay, to wait at the hotel. The results of the March 28 elections would be released soon, he said.

Soon has a different meaning in Zimbabwe. So does the phrase "free and fair election." Zimbabweans did not learn who won the presidential race until the beginning of May.

The leader of the main opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai, claimed outright victory. The official figures said otherwise. Tsvangirai did defeat President Robert Mugabe but he did not claim a majority of votes, forcing a runoff set for June 27.

Now, of course, even this second vote is in doubt. Faced with increasing partisan violence aimed at his supporters, Tsvangirai announced on the weekend he was withdrawing from the runoff and sought refuge at the Dutch embassy in Harare.

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Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, supporters are taken by police from outside the Harvest House, the headquarters of the MDC, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Friday April 25, 2008. Scores of heavily armed police raided opposition headquarters in Harare on Friday, forcibly taking hundreds into custody and arresting 300 people, opposition officials said. The opposition and independent religious and human rights groups have accused President Robert Mugabe's regime of a violent crackdown on dissent since the March 29 elections. ((AP Photo/Str))

Is this a ruse to solicit sympathy votes or Western intervention, as Mugabe supporters allege? Will Friday's election still go ahead, with Tsvangirai's name on the ballot?

Nothing is really clear at this point other than the fact that, in today's Zimbabwe, change is unlikely to come through something as simple as the ballot box.

What a difference

Back in April, we were loath to leave Zimbabwe, being among the very few journalists from a Western news organization who were in the country legally. We witnessed an election that featured some obvious flaws.

We visited an empty field on the outskirts of Harare, the country's capital, that had suddenly become "home" for thousands of people. The candidate for Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change complained of a blatant attempt to create ghost voters.

For all that though, the election itself was the most peaceful since independence from Britain in 1980. In its immediate aftermath, something remarkable happened.

In a nation where so many had been intimidated or beaten into submission and silence, people began to speak out and speak loudly about the need for change.

There was word Mugabe, 84, was ready to step aside, that there were talks with the Movement for Democratic Change about a transition to a new government. There were celebrations in the streets.

Yet even before we left, menacing signs of another shift began to appear. Every afternoon, young officers in riot gear began patrolling the streets of Harare. Military trucks rumbled by, some equipped with water cannons to disperse any gatherings.

Some opposition activists were already on the run, including Tsvangirai. We had to travel to a secret location to interview him a week after the election. Now, he is holed up in the Dutch embassy, though he does not appear to have asked for asylum.

When we talked with him back in the spring, he was already moving from house to house to avoid harassment, but he downplayed any concerns about his safety. He then left the country the next day.

When he came back, it was to campaign in an increasingly tense and violent nation. Tsvangirai was repeatedly detained as he tried to hold rallies. One of his party's top officials is in jail, charged with subversion and facing a possible death penalty.

Others have been tortured, beaten and, in few dozen cases, brutally murdered for supporting the opposition. Thousands more have been chased from their homes.

African leaders on the hotseat

Mugabe, in turn, fans the flames by threatening all-out war if he loses. He and his ruling ZANU-PF party have banned humanitarian aid organizations from distributing food to Zimbabwe's hungry, accusing them of working against the government.

In the face of all this, the facade of African solidarity is beginning to crack. A handful of leaders – from Kenya, Rwanda and Botswana – have voiced concern about the violence. Ministers from southern African nations are now openly saying that the vote will not be free and fair because of the spreading bloodshed.

Words of condemnation were also flowing out of the United Nations recently as well, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leading the charge in a special session at the United Nations. Yet in both cases, there was no sign that the words would be backed up with action.

Africa is still divided on whether and how it should intervene; Zimbabwe's longtime ally China has routinely blocked any moves by the UN Security Council to take action.

And so, the economy continues to slide into ruin with galloping inflation. The violence and ruin continue to climb as election-day approaches.

Just a week ago, Tsvangirai told CBC Radio's The Current  that, in spite of everything, he is expecting a huge voter turnout.

"On the ground, people are exuberant, they are triumphant, they are defiant," he said. "They want to finish him off."

By Sunday, however, the party had decided to pull out of the election entirely. 

Mugabe continues his campaign, talking of empowerment and raising his fist in the traditional, defiant salute of his party.

Whether it is him or whether it is his cadre of loyal officials who, many observers say, fear being put on trial if he leaves office, the old man of Zimbabwe politics now says he will not leave until he has fulfilled all of his objectives, including transferring all land to the hands of the black majority. For him, at least, it is an ambition that would seem to transcend the ballot box.