Scenes from a guerrilla war. An old blue bus, with a sign on the windshield declaring its destination to be hard times, rattles down a highway in eastern Zimbabwe. By the roadside, a soldier drills chanting youngsters as local villagers look on, frowning. They know what these recruits are used for: nighttime brutality against the enemy--suspected "sellouts," supporters of a rival political party. One youth recalls how an Army unit arrived in his mountain village and staged a footrace for local boys. Those able to run six miles in 45 minutes were told they would be trained, then given 45,000 Zimbabwe dollars (US$200) and a chance to enlist. But graduates say that they mainly are indoctrinated into the vital necessity of victory for President Robert Mugabe and the party that has ruled Zimbabwe unchallenged for more than two decades. "I would have gone, but I have asthma," said the boy. "What other prospects are there for me here?"

Zimbabwe's landmark presidential elections this weekend have brought the country back to the future. Facing political oblivion, Mugabe has returned to his roots as a hard-line ideologue committed to building a one-party state to serve a classless society. His tactics have scandalized the world. They make no sense by postmillennial standards, when nearly every nation has bought into the same liberal economic system and multiparty democracy--or at least pretends to. Surprise: though Mugabe took and has remained in power through elections, he is committed to them and to the other trappings of democracy only so far as they serve his interests. The proof is that he has endangered his country's very livelihood--its rich farms--by claiming to invoke principle: the promise that he let languish for more than 20 years to give the land back to blacks. His real aim is to retain power, and in his desperation to do it, he has revived the brutal tactics that brought him supremacy and have allowed him to exercise total control. "We are a Concorde with no reverse and no brakes," says a senior cabinet minister. "Captain Mugabe is at the controls."

On the ground, the campaign has reached the boiling point. Citing blatant violence and intimidation by Mugabe's forces, the European Union last month pulled out its election observers and froze Mugabe's assets there. Last week Britain's Tony Blair declared that if the elections were free, the opposition would win. Mugabe told him to "go to hell." The challenger, former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, was embroiled in a byzantine scandal involving allegations by a dubious Montreal-based consultancy that Tsvangirai plotted to assassinate Mugabe. He was taken in by police and charged with treason. Pro-government thugs have stoned and injured several South African observers but Zimbabwe's neighbors closed ranks with Mugabe, 78. The region, at least, was preparing to affirm the result.

This solidarity grows out of Mugabe's stature as a pillar of the black liberation struggle. Though the execution of his political program--such that it is--has been pathetically weak, Southern African leaders remember him as an intellectual leading light, supremely confident and unbending. "I have known President Mugabe for 36 years, and I can tell you that he is a man of principle," says Emmerson Munangagwa, Zimbabwe's parliamentary speaker, tipped by some to succeed Mugabe. "If you make an agreement he does not shift until you meet again and decide on shifting. Once Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front [ZANU-PF], resolved in September 1977 that we shall require land to distribute to our landless people, the president has never shifted from that position. The only constraints we have had are constitutional." And in recent years, Mugabe has repeatedly ignored these constraints.

From the beginning, some of those who knew him well found Mugabe almost unnaturally focused. Relatives remember him, growing up in penury after his father abandoned his mother, as distant, extremely obstinate and determined to succeed. His ladder was the best one available to a poor boy--the church. He deeply impressed the Jesuit priests who taught him. Under them, he embarked on a lifelong intellectual journey, first as a teacher, then a scholarship student of history and law. The Jesuits gave him confidence in his own powers of reasoning. He was abstemious--smoking made no sense to him, and he couldn't understand how a person could enjoy being out of control under the influence of alcohol. He found Marxism at Fort Hare University in South Africa, then taught in Zambia and finally Ghana--the first African colony to gain independence--which was bursting with African nationalism under the charismatic Kwame Nkrumah.

His own country's liberation struggle brought him home to what then was called Rhodesia. In 1960 he resigned his teaching post to become a full-time activist. In 1963, when he broke with Joshua Nkomo to help found a new party, Mugabe's followers in the black townships used firebombings, beatings with sticks and machete attacks--the same weapons now being used against the supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai. The next year Rhodesia's new, right-wing white government jailed him for sedition. During his 11 years in prison he earned three advanced degrees--in law and economics--by correspondence from London. "I got the very clear impression that he was equipping his intellect for the tasks ahead," recalled one of his tutors to biographer Martin Meredith. In supplanting his rivals, he had shown his main character traits to be utter ruthlessness and the ability to make others believe in him.

Mugabe was released under terms of a ceasefire negotiated by Britain. But he was hostile to the talks; he feared a political settlement would leave the country's white, capitalist power structure in place and stymie his dream of empowering blacks. He went into exile in Mozambique, where spent two years taking over the main guerrilla movement, ZANU or the Zimbabwe African National Union. Under his leadership, its guerrillas gained a reputation for cruelty. By 1979 they had also gained ground in the countryside and were planning a new campaign of urban warfare when Mugabe's worst fears were realized. The heads of neighboring African states, unwilling to continuing suffering reprisals for supporting those fighting white rule in Rhodesia, threatened to shut his bases unless he entered into British-brokered peace talks. Under duress, he ultimately signed the Lancaster House accord, which, he believed, robbed him of the total victory on the battlefield that would have given him a free hand.

Victorious in 1980 elections, Mugabe showed his genius by masking his intentions toward whites. "If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and an ally," he said in a national radio broadcast. "If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you." This policy of reconciliation inspired a continent still reeling from the racist excesses of Idi Amin in Uganda. And from then on, people found it hard to believe anything critical said about Mugabe. Outside Zimbabwe, this image even carried him through more than three years of pogroms his forces conducted in the western provinces of Matabeleland. Korean-trained troops starved or massacred about 8,000 civilians during a relatively small uprising of former guerrillas loyal to Ndebele leader Joshua Nkomo. But Mugabe sometimes let down his guard. "We have degrees in violence," he once observed. Though governments bailed him out year after year, corruption by his former comrades steadily undermined him. He used the centerpiece land-reform program, in particular, as a vehicle for rewarding party loyalists. Britain pulled out after spending ??44 million. Fraud depleted the fund for compensating wounded veterans. The prize went to Mugabe's brother-in-law, who collected some US$80,000 for ulcers and a scarred knee. Mugabe resorted to cheating to try to beat back the few ZANU members who broke ranks, disgusted by corruption, and, after a 10-year moratorium on constitutional changes ended in 1990, tweaked the laws to help him maintain near-total control of Parliament. He violently repressed student protests and peaceful demonstrations against the country's economic decline. Ultimately it all caught up with him. Two years ago voters rejected a new Constitution and nearly handed control of Parliament to the upstart Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), built on urban workers with no ties to the bush wars or historical grievances against white farmers. Mugabe's response was to provoke crisis--by sanctioning illegal invasions of white-owned farms by "war veterans."

And so now it's back to the bush. Outside the cities, youths at unofficial roadblocks terrorize citizens at night. Everyone must carry a party card or risk torture. "There's no way I'm going to vote," says a poor Mutare craftsman. "We're all afraid of getting hurt." Last month a ZANU mob smashed down the home of an opposition leader and cut off his head. All the pre-election violence sets the stage for a cataclysm. "Many of us think there will be civil war whatever the election outcome," says a painter in Ruwa, near Harare. "Neither Mr. Mugabe nor the MDC will accept the other's victory, and then what?" With Mugabe still following his 1970s flight plan, there's precious little chance for a soft landing.