Mugabe claims he's open to talks

Friday’s one-candidate presidential run-off is already a footnote, with the world looking beyond the electoral charade to how Zimbabwe can be pushed toward real democracy.

Already, President Robert Mugabe has extended an olive branch to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, saying on Thursday he was “open to discussion” with them. But voting day will nonetheless be closely watched for indications of how determined Mugabe is to hold onto power—observers expect him to orchestrate a mass turnout, with anyone who tries to stay home attacked as an opposition supporter.

Mugabe, who spoke at a campaign rally on Thursday, had until now shown little interest in talks and his government had scoffed at opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s call on Wednesday to work together to form a transitional authority.

Tsvangirai, the only candidate facing Mugabe in the run-off, announced on Sunday he was withdrawing from Friday’s vote because state-sponsored violence against his supporters had made it impossible to run. He then fled to the Dutch embassy for safety.

Tsvangirai told the BBC World Service that voters will be forced to the polls on Friday.

“There will be massive frog-marching of the people to the polling stations by force,” he said in an interview from the embassy.

“There could be a massive turnout, not because of the will of the people but because of the role of the military and the traditional leaders to force people to these polls.”

However, he told his supporters not to offer resistance if militants from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party or government soldiers force them to go to the polls and even said they should vote.

“They should go.
If they even vote for Zanu-PF, if they even vote for Mugabe, what does that change?” he said in the BBC interview. “It makes no difference because the vote is a fraud anyway.”

Tension, fear
By Thursday, an atmosphere of tension and fear had settled over the capital, seen by some as a city under occupation.

Businesses and factories closed down around noon ahead of Friday’s poll. Most schools had been shut since Monday, with parents called by teachers to collect their children because there were “strangers” camped in vacant land who were said to be Mugabe militants.

“There are too many people going around. It’s like we are under some sort of siege,” said Chipo Chihota, a mother in a food line near her daughter’s closed school.

Trees and lamp posts across Harare were plastered with fresh Mugabe election posters. A few remnant posters of Tsvangirai from the first round of voting on March 29 were defaced and torn, some with his eyes gouged out.

In grasslands and wooded areas, militants have set up camps used for political meetings in recent days.

Peter Nyirenda, owner of a small clothing store in eastern Harare, said he closed his doors on Tuesday because of the presence of militants camped nearby.

“It’s not safe,” he said.

In a main parking lot for buses in downtown Harare, most minibus taxis and buses were also plastered with Mugabe stickers, fliers, posters, flags and bandannas.

Several drivers said militants ordered them to bedeck their vehicles with Mugabe campaign fliers or they would be forced to stop plying their routes.

Ruling-party trucks laden with youths wearing T-shirts and Mugabe campaign scarves traversed downtown Harare. Some shops locked down their shutters and in a district of Asian-owned general dealers, private security guards were posted at half-closed doors.

“There’s been a general mobilisation of Mugabe’s people,” said one businessman who gave his name only as Mukesh.

Many private cars also carried Mugabe stickers and fliers.

‘We’re not taking bookings tonight’
Witnesses in township suburbs surrounding the capital said army troops and police were on patrol and militants ordered market stalls and bars to close by dusk.

In well-to-do suburbs, sporting clubs and restaurants reported receiving warnings they too should close by early evening.

“We’re not taking bookings tonight, and in any case all week our regulars didn’t want to be out after dark. It’s that tense,” said one restaurant manager.

Kubatana, an independent information website, said Mugabe supporters were manning illegal roadblocks on main streets and highways where police were not present.

Witnesses reported nine checkpoints on a 200km stretch of highway from the eastern city of Mutare, five of them manned only by militants.

Kubatana reported witnesses saying Mugabe supporters told voters to turn out for Friday’s poll in large numbers to give Mugabe a landslide win. Those without indelible ink stains from polling stations on their fingers would be seen as opposition supporters boycotting the vote in support of Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the run-off.

The website also reported Mugabe officials demanding voters write down the serial number of their ballot paper so their vote could be checked later. It said in rural districts village elders also said they would log the names of voters in line at polling stations to cast their ballots, and voters who didn’t show up would be punished.

United States ambassador James McGee, meanwhile, said in a statement that Zanu-PF was planning to force voters to participate in the run-off despite Tsvangirai’s withdrawal.

“We’ve received reports that Zanu-PF will force people to vote on Friday and take action against those who refuse,” he said.

Accreditation problems
Also on Thursday, the main independent local election observer group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said it was unable to field monitors because they had not been accredited.

The organisation said Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is also chief spokesperson for Mugabe’s party, restricted the number of its
monitors to 500 for the run-off but still failed to clear them for accreditation three days before the poll.

In the first round of voting March 29 the organisation deployed several thousand monitors across the country and was the biggest independent body observing polling and collating details of results as they were made public at about 9 000 polling stations.

But in April, police raided the group’s offices and homes of officials looking for alleged “subversive material.” Zanu-PF officials accused the group of bribing voting officers to inflate opposition tallies but no charges were brought.

Tsvangirai was first in a field of four in the first round of the presidential election on March 29, but the official tally said he did not gain the 50% plus one vote needed to avoid a run-off against the second place finisher, the 84-year-old Mugabe.

That campaign was generally peaceful, but the run-off has been overshadowed by violence and intimidation, especially in rural areas.

Independent human rights groups say 85 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, most of them opposition supporters.

Zimbabwe opposition party’s number two official, who has been charged with treason, was granted bail and released from jail on Thursday.

Tendai Biti was required to surrender his passport and the title to his home and report to police twice a week in addition to bail set at one trillion Zimbabwean dollars, or about $100, lawyer Lewis Uriri said.

Biti returned to his home in the capital late afternoon, two weeks after he was jailed, looking tired and frail but still sounding defiant.

“Some people stay 27 years in prison so two weeks is nothing,” he said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. “It wasn’t easy though, but we have to continue fighting.” - Sapa-AP

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