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Sapa and M&G Online reporters, Sapa-AP27 Jun 2008 18:50
Widespread voter intimidation marked Zimbabwe’s one-candidate presidential run-off on Friday, further damaging the bizarre vote designed to bolster President Robert Mugabe’s credibility.
Residents were forced to vote, threatened by violence, arson or roving bands of government supporters searching for those without an ink-stained finger.
Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the run-off against Mugabe after intense state-sponsored violence, said the results would “reflect only the fear of the people”.
At a news conference, he said: “What is happening today is not an election.
He added that he still wanted negotiations about a transitional authority for Zimbabwe, but was not sure whether he could talk with Mugabe.
Mugabe (84) appeared jovial as he voted on Friday, telling a reporter he was feeling “very fit, very optimistic, upbeat and hungry”. He later told Southern African Development Community observers he was confident he would be victorious, a spokesperson for the regional bloc said.
Fear and intimidation contrasted with the excitement and hope for change that marked the first round of voting in March. Despite the pressure, reporters and independent observers saw low turnout on Friday.
Paramilitary police in riot gear deployed in a central Harare park, then began patrolling the city. Militant Mugabe supporters roamed the streets, singing revolutionary songs, heckling people and asking why they were not voting.
A gunman in civilian clothes was seen attacking a TV news cameraman and the voter he was interviewing on a Harare street, then forcing them into a police vehicle. In addition, two Zimbabwean freelance journalists were detained by police on Friday as they waited to watch Mugabe vote at a Harare polling station.
In Epworth, a poor suburb just outside Harare, known MDC supporters were told that if they did not vote, they would “face the music after the polls”. Zanu-PF militia and war veterans were moving from house to house ordering people to go and vote for Mugabe.
Queues in other populous Harare suburbs such as Glen View, Kuwadzana and Warren Park were generally short at some polling stations, despite Zanu-PF’s efforts to record a high voter turnout to give Mugabe a “convincing victory”.
Sandra Moyo from Epworth said: “I wanted the red ink that shows that I voted on my finger tip. Otherwise I went into the booth and spoiled the ballot. I cannot give my power away easily.”
In Mbare, a market suburb in Harare, vendors were told they would lose their right to sell their wares if they did not go and vote for Mugabe.
Sheila Mupenda, who sells second-hand clothes, said: “It is important that we go and vote for this man or we will be chased away. Yesterday we held a meeting around midnight and it was impressed upon us by the youths that it was a matter of death and life and a vote for Mugabe was the only way.”
Nelson Chamisa, MDC spokesperson, said: “The president [Tsvangirai] advised people to go and vote if they feel their lives are threatened. This was after he got information that the Zanu-PF militia was planning an operation codenamed ‘Operation Did You Vote’.”
In rural areas like Mutoko in Mashonaland East province, headmen were said to have led their people to the polling stations.
There was a fracas in Mpopoma in Bulawayo when residents, clearly agitated by the war veterans who were forcing them to report to the polling stations, beat up two of them. Witness Nqobile Ndlovu said: “The war veterans called the police, who arrested people randomly. They were not ready to listen and were only ready to side with the war veterans, who are clearly above the law now.”
Forced to vote
Mugabe, who has been president since independence in 1980, is believed to want a large turnout so he can claim an overwhelmingly victory over Tsvangirai, whose name remained on the ballot because electoral officials say his withdrawal last Sunday came too late.
Election observers said Zimbabweans were being forced to the polls and were too frightened to talk. “Some of them are saying, ‘We were told to come here,’” Pan African Parliament spokesperson Khalid A Dahab said. “It’s just not normal. There’s a lot of tension.”
Few people turned out at poll opening time in the capital’s densely populated Mbare suburb, an opposition stronghold. Later, lines built up as voters arrived in groups, led by people believed to be ruling-party marshals carrying books filled with names. In one side street, names were being called out and ticked off as people headed into a polling station.
But elsewhere, the two or three voters were outnumbered by an intimidating police presence.
A polling station at Gifford High School in Bulawayo opened at 7am with no voters in sight. At Hillside Scout Hall, only 10 people—two white and eight black—had voted by 9.10am.
In Mzingwane constituency, a number of people said they had voted in order to get the red ink stain, which could guarantee their safety over the next few days.
People were staying off the streets in Zimbabwe’s second main city of Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold. Rights activist Dusani Ncube said he went to 10 polling stations and found that only two people voted.
Abel Chikomo, of the independent Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project in Bulawayo, said: “There are more queues at bars than at polling stations. People know the election is a farce.”
But Ncube said he had received news from rural areas outside Bulawayo that people had been told to vote or their homes would be burned.
Massive voter apathy characterised the election in most parts of Matabeleland, with an average of 10 people having cast their ballots at most polling stations by lunchtime.
Average queues were seen in the Mpopoma-Pelandaba constituency where a parallel by-election was being held. Both factions of the MDC were contesting the parliamentary seat where elections were postponed following the death of Milton Gwetu, a candidate for the Arthur Mutambara-led MDC.
A by-election was also being held in Gwanda South, where voter turnout was said to be disappointing.
Short queues were observed at most polling stations in Mutare. Some queues had as few as five people with the longest having about a dozen.
Some people were queueing as early as 6am. In the morning, armed police and soldiers assaulted traders at Mutare’s long-distance bus terminus, forcing them to go to vote. Hundreds of vendors who had thronged the terminus for business lost wares as they fled from the scene. Both soldiers and police remained stationed at the terminus.
“Today voters showed Zanu-PF and President Mugabe that they can rise to the challenge when they are being taken for granted,” said Max Mnkandla, president of the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Platform, a pressure group for former liberation war fighters. “Mugabe cannot claim to be the legitimate leader of the country with such a voter turnout and his strategy to try to resurrect his political fortunes has failed dismally.”
‘Don’t risk your lives’
In an email voting-day message, Tsvangirai said he expected voters to be threatened, to be told to record their ballot numbers and to be filmed as they voted. He advised them not to resist. “God knows what is in your heart. Don’t risk your lives,” the opposition leader wrote from the Dutch embassy, where he has sought refuge.
In middle-class Greendale suburb, Eunice Maboreke came out of a polling station but would not reveal her choice. “My vote is my secret,” she told a reporter.
One resident, Livingstone Gwaze, said he had voted for Mugabe. “Things will get better. There is darkness before light,” he said.
Another man refused to give his name but held up his ink-stained finger to show he had voted. Mugabe party militants were reportedly checking for the ink stain and considering those without it to be opposition supporters.
Kubatana, a website forum for independent Zimbabwean human rights groups, said Mugabe supporters were manning illegal roadblocks on Friday on main streets and highways. The move aimed to crush any attempted election boycott and to stage-manage a high election turnout.
Witnesses reported nine checkpoints on a 200km stretch of highway from the eastern city of Mutare.
Riot police and regular officers also blocked off the South African embassy in Harare, apparently to keep any more opposition members from fleeing there. At least 200 people were already at the embassy, many camping with blankets and piles of belongings in the parking lot.
African statesmen—including Botswana’s Ian Khama, Kenya’s Premier Raila Odinga, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and former South Africa leader Nelson Mandela—have all condemned the violence by Zanu-PF militants against MDC supporters preceding the election. The MDC says at least 86 of its supporters were killed and more than 200 000 displaced.
Other world leaders roundly condemned the vote. Nigeria became the latest African nation to call for a postponement of the run-off election.
Italy’s foreign minister said his country was calling for European Union ambassadors to be withdrawn from Zimbabwe.
“Today’s election is a sham, the election is hollow and its result will be equally hollow and meaningless,” EU spokesperson Krisztina Nagy said in Brussels, Belgium.
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at a meeting in Japan, said the US would raise possible sanctions with other members of the United Nations Security Council.
Foreign ministers from the powerful Group of Eight closed a two-day meeting in Japan with a joint statement deploring “the actions of the Zimbabwean authorities ... which have made a free and fair presidential run-off election impossible”.
South African President Thabo Mbeki would not comment on the run-off election, he said on Friday.
The president, who was receiving letters of credence from four countries, said he would not be commenting on the run-off, pending the outcome of the upcoming AU summit.
“Not today,” was Mbeki’s reply to the question.
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