Voters in western Zimbabwe began voting on Saturday in a by-election seen as a test of strength between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition, ahead of next year’s legislative elections, an electoral official said.
Residents in the remote district of Lupane are casting their ballots to replace an opposition lawmaker reported to have died from torture wounds.
The two-day election in Lupane pits Martin Khumalo of Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate, Njabuliso Mguni.
Voting took place as pro-democracy activists were arrested for allegedly trying to hold an illegal meeting in the central city of Gweru, about 250km west of the capital.
The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) group was preparing to meet to discuss changes to the Constitution to strengthen rights when police descended on a Gweru hotel, beating participants with truncheons, according to witnesses.
The NCA has for the past years been fighting for a home-grown Constitution and has vowed that no elections will be held in the country next year until a new Constitution is drawn.
Meanwhile, Electoral Supervisory Commission spokesperson Thomas Bvuma said villagers in Lupane, about 600km west of Harare, started voting at 7am local time.
“Polling stations opened at seven and turnout is reasonable. It’s all quiet and peaceful,” Bvuma said by telephone.
But the MDC has alleged voter intimidation and vote buying by Mugabe’s party.
In a statement, the MDC claimed that “village heads affiliated to Zanu-PF are selling maize [staple grain] at giveaway prices to the electorate as they come to cast their votes”.
The MDC also alleged that at some polling stations Zanu-PF supporters were taking down names of voters who went in to vote.
The run-up to the election saw clashes between the two parties, resulting in the arrest of more than 60 opposition supporters. All but two were freed without charges.
With Zanu-PF vowing to wrest the seat from the MDC, the poll will be a litmus test for both political parties in the run-up to the national parliamentary elections due in March next year.
Buoyed by its recent success in an urban by-election in March, Zanu-PF officials were positive they would win the seat in this traditionally opposition stronghold.
The MDC, which has lost several seats to the ruling party in about a dozen by-elections held since 2000, is confident of retaining the Lupane seat.
“In spite of the regime’s evil efforts of intimidation, torture and assaults of innocent civilians, the people of Lupane are determined to turn out in their numbers and show the discredited Zanu-PF-led government that violence does not pay,” said MDC spokesperson Paul Temba Nyathi.
The opposition, which won the seat in the 2000 general elections, alleged that the former MP in the seat, David Mpala, who died in February this year, succumbed to torture wounds inflicted in the run-up to the polls four years ago.
The MDC said Mpala’s health “deteriorated … after being tortured and stabbed by Zanu-PF supporters” in 2002.
The MDC stormed on to the Zimbabwean political scene in 2000 parliamentary elections, clinching 57 predominantly urban constituency seats out of the 120 contested seats. The ruling party won 62 seats and it still holds the majority.
Mugabe appointed 30 other non-constituency legislators to Parliament, but his party still does not enjoy the two-thirds majority required to change the Constitution. — Sapa-AFP