Mugabe defiant ahead of 'sham' election

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe held final campaign rallies on Thursday on the eve of a one-man election denounced as a sham by the West after the opposition leader pulled out of the contest.

As international pressure grew on the veteran leader not to hold the ballot following a wave of violence, Mugabe defiantly struck out, and again portrayed his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, as a stooge of former colonial power Britain.

Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the contest on Sunday, remained holed up in the Dutch embassy in Harare and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) number two was to reappear in court on treason charges.

Mugabe’s last major election appearance was to take place in Chitungwiza, just outside the capital, Harare, before addressing reporters.

In a rally late on Wednesday close to the north-eastern border with Mozambique, Mugabe castigated Britain and took a thinly veiled swipe at the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the 14-nation regional bloc that has urged him to postpone the vote.

“We are now an independent country and no longer under British colonial rule,” the 84-year-old Mugabe told supporters of his Zanu-PF party.

“We may have ties with other countries, but that is all. Friendship does not mean you are in charge of our country, you are part of us, no!” he said.

He urged loyalists to give him an overwhelming victory in Friday’s poll. Although Tsvangirai has pulled out of the race, his name will stay on the ballot paper as organisers say it is too late for him to withdraw.

“If we fail [to win], we will be the laughing stock of the entire world.
This is a critical matter ahead of us, so we have to win overwhelmingly,” Mugabe told thousands of villagers, according to comments carried by state media.

His comments were likely to increase concerns within SADC, whose leaders have been trying to prod Mugabe into scrapping the vote and hold talks with the MDC on forming a unity government.

“The political situation appears not to be permissive for holding the run-off elections in a manner that will be free and fair,” Tomaz Augusto Salomao, SADC secretary general, said on Wednesday after Swaziland’s King Mswati III hosted an emergency meeting on the Zimbabwe crisis.

“Holding the elections under the current environment undermines the credibility and legitimacy of the outcome.”
However, the SADC leaders’ appetite for confrontation with Africa’s oldest leader appeared limited.

Wednesday’s crisis meeting was also notable for those not present: South African President Thabo Mbeki, the SADC-appointed mediator for Zimbabwe who has faced criticism over his quiet diplomacy approach.

Salomao said Mbeki had briefed them by phone instead, though he declined to provide details on the discussions.

‘Tragic failure’
International criticism of Mugabe has intensified, with former South African president Nelson Mandela making a rare public statement on Zimbabwe late on Wednesday.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, speaking at a fundraiser in London, spoke of a “tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe”.

United States President George Bush has said Friday’s polls “appear to be a sham”, adding he hoped the African Union, which is set to hold a June 30 to July 1 summit in Egypt, would “continue to highlight the illegitimacy of the elections”.

In withdrawing from the vote, Tsvangirai said he could not ask supporters to cast ballots when it could cost them their lives.

The MDC says more than 80 of its supporters have been killed and thousands injured in a campaign of intimidation in the approach to the run-off.

Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, is accused by critics of leading Zimbabwe’s economy to ruin and trampling on human rights. The country is facing the world’s highest inflation rate and major food shortages.—Sapa-AFP

Susan Njanji

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