Voters hope ink-stained finger will keep them alive
The young man who gave his name only as Wilson wanted just one thing from Friday’s presidential election in Zimbabwe: the indelible red ink on his little finger to show he had voted.
“They said they would come to see if we voted,” he said after casting his ballot in a tent in a Harare suburb. “They know if we went to vote we would have to vote for the president. They were watching.”
Who are “they”?
“The ones who made us go to the meetings at night.
The ones who told us we must be careful to correct our mistake.”
Wilson voted for Robert Mugabe on Friday against his will but judging that it was the best way to save himself from a beating or worse.
So did many other Zimbabweans, driven to the polls by fear after a bloody and relentless campaign of beatings, abductions and murders against the voters by the ruling Zanu-PF to reverse Mugabe’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change leader who beat him clearly in the first round of voting three months ago but without an outright majority.
The state-run Herald newspaper on Friday predicted a “massive” turnout in support of Mugabe. There were few signs of that in Harare although those who stayed away from the polls in the more upmarket parts of the capital tended to be the homeowners. Their maids and gardeners, subjected to nightly forced political meetings by Zanu-PF, were taking no chances.
The Zanu-PF militia was out early in Chitungwiza, one of the Harare townships where the ruling party unleashed its violent campaign of retribution to “reorient” people who voted for the opposition last time. They moved from house to house at dawn, singing liberation war songs and banging on doors to warn people to vote.
Near some polling stations in the township, voters were directed to buildings where ruling party activists told them to record the serial numbers of the ballot paper they received at the voting booth and to return with it.
‘I will not vote for my own oppression’
Zanu-PF set up tents close to some polling stations in Harare where people were expected to show their identity cards so their names could be ticked off as having voted.
But some people remained defiant. “I refuse to vote,” said Blessed Manyonga in Chitungwiza. “If they ask me I will say I lost my identity card. I will not vote for my own oppression.”
Others said they spoiled their ballot papers. “I put a question mark next to Robert Mugabe,” said a man who gave his name only as Tendai. “It’s a joke.”
In Harare, one man said he had not voted at all and instead smeared his finger with ink from a ballpoint pen. But in many rural areas people were being driven en masse to the polls and left in no doubt about what they were expected to do.
Opposition officials said some voters reported having their identity numbers written on the back of their ballot papers. In other places they were forced to show how they had marked the ballot before they dropped it in the voting box.
Still others were handed pre-marked ballots by ruling party activists and told to hand back the blank ones they received inside the polling booths to prove they had not voted for the opposition.
Pishai Muchauraya, an opposition MP in Manicaland, said he witnessed a low turnout in Mutare, the province’s main city, but had received reports of voters being forced to the polls and intimidated in large numbers in rural areas where the vote swung against Mugabe in March.
“Here in the urban areas people have just stayed at home. They are defiant. In rural areas like Buhera and Makoni people are being forced to go and vote. They say we will check your finger and if you don’t vote ...” he said. “They are also expected to say they cannot read and write, and to ask for assistance to vote. People were forced to sleep at Zanu-PF bases and then taken to vote. All that kind of coercion.”
Opposition activists in Mashonaland said whole villages had been warned that if there was anything short of a substantial victory for Mugabe when the count was made at local polling stations, then those who voted there would be collectively punished.
But there were those who voted for Mugabe more than willingly. “Why should we vote against our president when he liberated this country?” said Agnes Tapera in Chitungwiza. “What is Tsvangirai? Did he fight in the liberation war? Why is he so friendly with those white farmers? Why does Britain support him? Tsvangirai is not a president. He runs away every time it gets difficult. Right now he is hiding in that [Dutch] embassy. Mugabe stays and fights. He fought Ian Smith and the British and he is fighting Tsvangirai and he will win.”
It was all in stark contrast to the first round of presidential elections three months ago when Mugabe’s opponents briefly believed they might finally remove him from power simply by marking a ballot paper. There was no such illusion on Friday.
Mugabe emerged from voting in Highfield township in Harare proclaiming himself “very optimistic” and “upbeat” that the ballot would reverse his first round defeat. That was one thing Zimbabwe’s president for the past 28 years and the opposition agreed on—that there’s little doubt Mugabe will be declared the winner.
His Zanu-PF party says it is a popular response to its campaign for “100% empowerment and independence” from British imperialism.
The ruling party chairperson, John Nkomo, made a televised appeal to Zimbabweans to support Mugabe by portraying support for the opposition as akin to recolonisation and Tsvangirai as a Downing street puppet.
“Our statehood and our nationhood are under severe threat. The question before each and every one of us is whether, advertently or inadvertently, we will go down in the annals of history as defenders of our motherland or as traitors who unabashedly volunteered for servitude,” he said. “The ferocity of the anti-Zimbabwe campaign underscores what is at stake—our independence and future as a nation. Evidently this onslaught is being directed from London and Washington.”
Even the Queen—or what the Herald called the High Priestess of England—got dragged in for stripping Mugabe of his honorary knighthood this week.
The paper said it was a welcome development ahead of the election which confirmed the need to support “total independence”.
“No one has ever referred to our president as ‘Sir’ Robert Mugabe. He is known as ‘Comrade’ Robert Mugabe and that says it all,” said the Herald.
What is happening is not an election
Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the race because of the systematic violence that has virtually wiped out his party’s structures on the ground but who remained on the ballot paper, urged his supporters to stay away from the polls. But he said they should vote for Mugabe if that was necessary to save their skins.
“What is happening is not an election,” he said on Friday. “It is an exercise in mass intimidation with people all over the country being forced to vote. Fortunately, Zimbabweans are attempting to stay away from the polls as they can tell the difference between democracy and a dictatorship desperate for the illusion of legitimacy.”
But Tsvangirai said the vote would strip Mugabe of the last vestiges of legitimacy as president whatever the outcome of the election.“Zimbabweans know that there is nothing legitimate about this election and they know that there will be nothing legitimate about the result. This is a view shared by many African and world leaders,” he said.
“The end of this terrible, violent dictatorship is now assured, the people’s victory may have been delayed by this sham election but it will never be denied.”
Many of the voters are not so confident.“It was our mistake to think we could get rid of Mugabe,” said Wilson. “He is right when he says only God can get rid of him. I want to ask God if he is on our side.”
All the intimidation may in the end prove academic because ultimately what matters is the numbers on the final returns, and Zimbabwe’s state-controlled election commission will decide what they are beyond the reach of prying eyes.
The violence not only scared the voters but drove opposition and independent local election observers away from monitoring the polls. MDC polling agents have been systematically beaten up, thrown into jail, abducted and murdered.
The thousands of independent local observers who oversaw the election three months ago have also been terrorised into staying away, leaving the voting and the count largely unscrutinised by outside witnesses.
Only a few hundred observers from African organisations are monitoring the poll and they were hard-pressed to cover more than 9 000 polling stations. Many of those observers have seen enough to decide that the election was anything but free and fair, and seem ready to say so.
Mugabe plans to attend an African Union summit in Egypt next week as Zimbabwe’s newly re-elected president, and he will defy any of the continent’s leaders to question his legitimacy.
“When I go to the AU meeting next week, I am going to challenge some leaders to point out when we have had worse elections,” Mugabe told a final election rally on Thursday. “I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine.”
That is largely irrelevant to the voters, who just wanted to get through the day in one piece. But the end of balloting did not necessarily bring relief. In some parts of Harare, the voters were told to report back to the polling station after dark and to wait for the count to be completed. They were warned that if the numbers were not right, there would be a price to pay.
“I hope everybody did what I did and voted for Mugabe,” said Wilson. “Otherwise we’re all in trouble.” - guardian.co.uk