MASVINGO, Zimbabwe — Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has been forced out but he has hardly faded away. Ahead of this month’s historic election, dozens of people in T-shirts with his image danced to antigovernment songs while vowing revenge.
The 94-year-old Mugabe, who led this southern African nation through 37 turbulent years before his dramatic, military-backed resignation in November, has emerged as a player ahead of the July 30 vote — on the side of the opposition.
In the largely rural province of Masvingo, anger over Mugabe’s removal has been channeled into supporting candidates who challenge the ruling ZANU-PF party that he long controlled.
‘‘They removed Comrade Mugabe using military force. We should show them that the ballot box is supreme to the gun,’’ thundered Phionah Riekert, a 31-year-old loyalist of Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Youths and elderly women punctuated her campaign speech with song, dance, and the beating of drums.
Riekert seeks a parliamentary seat as a candidate with the National Patriotic Front, which was formed with Mugabe’s backing in March by members of a youthful faction loyal to him called the G-40. They had been purged from the government and ruling party by the military-backed administration of the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The G-40 has been suspected in the grenade attack last month at a campaign rally that killed two aides while the 75-year-old Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe deputy, was just ‘‘inches’’ away.
The National Patriotic Front has joined an opposition coalition backing the top challenger to Mnangagwa, 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa of the main opposition MDC party, while fielding close to 100 candidates in 210 constituencies countrywide.
The margin between Mnangagwa and Chamisa has narrowed to just 3 percentage points, the Afrobarometer research group said Friday after sampling 2,400 voters across the country between June 25 and July 6.
Although Mugabe has not addressed any political rallies, he remains a weighty presence in places like Masvingo, where support has swung between the ruling party and the opposition in past elections.
‘‘G-40 was influential in this province during Mugabe’s time. They have been regrouping, they have the capacity to cause quite an impact,’’ said Godfrey Mtimba, a journalist who has covered Masvingo for a decade.
Some residents, however, said they remain fond of Mugabe but will vote for Mnangagwa.