Morgenster Mission, Zimbabwe - The villagers assembled under a large tree near this Dutch Reformed Church mission station in southern Zimbabwe showed little sign of anxiety.
Watched by two uniformed policemen, presidential candidate Simba Makoni was telling them that members of President Robert Mugabe's politburo, having destroyed Zimbabwe's once-model education system, were now sending their children to school in Australia and the United States.
Enraged, a middle-aged matron shouted out, 'I want to vote now!' Even two months ago, a scene like that would not have been possible in this rural area that has been under the control of Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party since independence 28 years ago, said Victor Zvibwiti, a former schoolteacher from the area.
'These people would not have dared turn up for an opposition meeting. They would have had their heads bashed in. This has only happened since Makoni declared his challenge to Mugabe.'
Makoni, Mugabe's former finance minister and a member of Zanu-PF's politburo, the party's formal inner circle, stunned his erstwhile leader and his followers on February 5 when he declared the country's state of economic and social chaos was a result of the 'failure of leadership' of the
84-year-old leader, and that he would be standing against him for the presidency in elections on March 29.
The announcement appears to have thrown the ruling party into confusion, with thousands of middle-ranking officials deserting to join Makoni's campaign. So far, though, only one senior figure, Dumiso Dabengwa, the head of military intelligence of one of the two guerrilla movements fighting the country's white minority government in the 1972-1979 guerilla war, has openly joined Makoni.
Mugabe's propaganda machine describes the two men's desertions as 'a non-event,' while at the same time filling the official press, radio and television with condemnations of their 'betrayal.' Mugabe declared that Makoni was 'like a prostitute.'
It was obviously a case of 'methinks she does protest too much,' remarked a Western diplomat.
But with 10 days to go before the presidential election held simultaneously with parliamentary and local council elections Makoni appears to have a long way to go.
An opinion poll by the respected local Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) published last week, gave former national labour head Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the major faction of the divided Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), 28 per cent of the vote, Mugabe 20 per cent and Makoni only 9 per cent.
The poll was skewed by a heavy 24 per cent of people refusing to divulge their choice, and MPOI head Eldred Masungure said the poll showed that there was no clear winner.
'Makoni has a lot of latent support,' he said. 'The trick is converting it into manifest support. Those in the shadows, particular the senior figures who are being talked about, need to gather their courage before election day and declare themselves.'
Voters are attracted to among others, the absence of any corruption or violence in Makoni's background, compared with other senior officials, analysts said. He is also the only long-term close associate of Mugabe who was not involved in the guerrilla war, analysts point out.
Simbarashe Herbert Stanley Makoni was born in the eastern districts of what was then Rhodesia on March 22, 1950, and went to mission schools for his secondary education where he first became politically active.
He was a science undergraduate at the University of Rhodesia in 1973 when he was expelled for taking part in a rowdy anti-government demonstration, and left for Britain.
There he enrolled at the University of Leeds and graduated in chemistry and zoology, while in his spare time he became a leading exiled activist for Mugabe's party. In 1978 he received his doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry at Leicester Polytechnic College.
He returned to Zimbabwe at independence in 1980, and became Mugabe's youngest minister, aged 30. After about four years following a disastrous handling of a national fuel crisis he left the government to become the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Coordination
Conference, a regional body trying to break away from economic dependence on then apartheid-ruled South Africa.
After 10 years, he returned home to be appointed chief executive of the state-owned newspaper company, but left to join the private sector after he rebuked one of his editors for racist attacks on whites, and Mugabe backed the editor.
After a few years in the private sector, he returned to government as an MP in 2000, and was appointed finance minister. He resigned after Mugabe refused his advice to devalue the currency. Mugabe then denounced him as an 'economic saboteur.'
Makoni and his wife, Chipo, had four sons, one of whom was killed in a motor accident in South Africa while a student there.