Zim govt accused of intimidation

President Robert Mugabe’s supporters have used violence to intimidate opponents in the run-up to next week’s Zimbabwe election, undermining chances of a fair poll, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

Mugabe faces the strongest challenge to his 28-year rule in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections on March 29 because of defections by senior ruling Zanu-PF party officials and a deepening economic crisis.

”As in previous elections, local government authorities, Zanu-PF supporters and security forces, including the police and central intelligence, are the main perpetrators of the violations …,” the United States-based rights group said in a report released in Johannesburg.

Opposition groups have accused Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, of rigging previous elections, allegations he denies.

”Despite some improvements on paper to the election regulations, Zimbabweans aren’t free to vote for the candidates of their choice,” said Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director.

”While there are four candidates running for president and many political parties involved, the election process itself is skewed.”

Mugabe hopes to fend off challenges from long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the biggest faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and former finance minister Simba Makoni, who was expelled from Zanu-PF.

Statements by two senior security officials that they would not accept an opposition victory have generated controversy in a largely peaceful campaign ahead of the election.

Zimbabweans are suffering from the world’s highest inflation rate — officially put at more than 100 000% — and chronic shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency.

The government has used state-subsidised food and farming equipment as a tool to gain political advantage, Human Rights Watch said, adding that the report was researched over seven weeks on visits to Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces.

Prices of some basic goods, including the staple maize meal, bread, cooking oil and soap, have risen by up to 300% since the start of this month.

Mugabe blames the country’s economic troubles on Western foes, especially former colonial master Britain.

The veteran leader has again threatened a crackdown on business leaders accused of hiking prices in what he says is a plot to turn voters against his government.

”The British are manipulating their companies in Zimbabwe to arbitrarily increase prices of goods and services in the hope of turning the electorate against Zanu-PF,” Mugabe said in a report broadcast by state media.

”We are not going to accept this madness [or] these kind of price increases from anyone,” he added.

A number of business executives have been arrested in the last week over charges of hiking prices without government authority.

‘Opportunity for change’

Meanwhile, millions who fled Zimbabwe amid its economic collapse blame Mugabe, but their inability to vote in elections this month may boost his chances to stay in power.

Opposition figures have urged them to return to be entitled to vote in the March 29 polls, but few are likely to.

An estimated 3,5-million have fled Zimbabwe to neighbouring South Africa and other countries, some risking their lives to make the trip illegally. They are unwilling to sacrifice everything to return.

Their families have also come to rely on money they send home to Zimbabwe.

”I wish I could go home and vote, but I risked too much coming here to go back,” said 18-year-old Sibusisiwe Dube, who would have qualified to vote for the first time this year.

Now working as a childminder in an upmarket Johannesburg suburb, as a 16-year-old seeking a better life she braved crocodiles to cross the Limpopo River into South Africa.

Makoni and Tsvangirai hope for strong support to oust Mugabe among those who fled abroad.

”Many of you are in the diaspora because you have seen home turn into hell … You have the opportunity to change this,” Makoni urges in a newspaper advertisement carried by South African newspapers over the last few weeks.

”Every vote counts, so please come home and let your voice be heard.”

Analysts say the bulk of Zimbabweans who left the country in the last eight years blame the Zanu-PF for their country’s economic crisis, and would most likely vote against it in the presidential, parliamentary and council polls. — Reuters

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