Peaceful election process still angers Zimbabwe opposition

Friday, April 1, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- On the surface, the process looked fair: Zimbabweans lined up peacefully and cast ballots Thursday in a parliamentary election President Robert Mugabe wants to vindicate his nearly 25-year rule.

But opposition leaders and independent groups said the poll was stacked in Mugabe's favor. Intimidation was rife, the electoral roll was in shambles and large numbers were unable to cast ballots, they said.

"We are not happy with the way the electoral playing field has been organized, and I think we all agree, on all benchmarks, this is not going to be a free and fair election," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said as he cast his ballot.

Under international pressure to produce a credible result, Mugabe's government and party stanched the bloodletting that has plagued previous elections in this southern African country. For the first time in years, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party was able to campaign openly.

Mugabe was confident the gamble would pay off, saying he was "entirely, completely, totally optimistic" of victory for his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. He said he voted only to increase the margin of the win.

However, encouraged by the drop in violence, Tsvangirai held out hope his party could muster enough support to claim Parliament.

The Movement for Democratic Change won 57 of Parliament's 120 elected seats in the last parliamentary election in 2000.

, despite what Western observers called widespread violence, intimidation and vote rigging.

But it lost six seats in subsequent by-elections. Mugabe appoints an additional 30 seats, virtually guaranteeing his party a majority.

In 2002, Tsvangirai was narrowly declared loser of a flawed presidential poll.

Mugabe accuses British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Western leaders of backing the 6-year-old Movement for Democratic Change, the first party to seriously challenge his rule since he led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980. He dubbed Thursday's vote the "anti-Blair election," and opposition supporters "traitors."

"My vote today will be a vote for Zimbabwe's sovereignty," said Thomas Mseruka, a 46-year-old carpenter and government supporter who voted in a neighborhood of dilapidated apartment buildings in Harare.

During the voting Thursday, police arrested two British journalists covering the election. Toby Harnden, The Sunday Telegraph's chief foreign correspondent, and Julian Simmonds, its photographer, were at a polling station south of the capital when they were arrested, the paper said. The paper's spokeswoman refused to comment on media reports that the pair were accused of working without accreditation.

The opposition has countered that Blair didn't run in Thursday's election, which it said was about Mugabe's failings.

Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk 50 percent over the past five years. Unemployment is at least 70 percent. Agriculture -- the country's economic base -- has collapsed, and at least 70 percent of the population live in poverty.

"I think it is time that somebody else took control of the country and do a better job to ensure that those like me actually get jobs," said Ketae Dikit, 31, a vegetable vendor.

Opposition leaders blame the economic woes on the government's often violent seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe defends the program as a way of righting racial imbalances in land ownership inherited from British rule, and blames food shortages on years of drought.

Some 5.8 million of Zimbabwe's nearly 12 million people were registered to vote. But up to 3.4 million Zimbabweans who live overseas -- many of whom are believed to be opposition supporters -- were barred from casting ballots.

A light rain fell as voters waited in lines up to 1,000 long in the capital, Harare. But in some rural areas, there was just a trickle of voters. Preliminary results were expected by Saturday.

Opposition leaders and rights groups complained the voters' roll was inflated and inaccurate. As many as a quarter of those who tried to vote before 3 p.m. were turned away because their names did not appear on the list or they failed to present proper identification, according to the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which deployed 6,000 observers nationwide.

George Chiweshe, a judge and former army officer who heads the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, conceded some were turned away but said the problem was not as big as the independent group estimated. He said less than 10 percent of the 1.4 million people who tried to vote before 2 p.m. were not allowed to.

The Movement for Democratic Change also complained that some of its election observers were barred from polling stations. In at least one township, ruling party supporters blocked the road to a polling station with stones. Nervous residents whispered they were turning away voters.

Mugabe dismissed the opposition's fears of fraud as "nonsense."

"Everybody has seen that these are free and fair elections," he said after voting.

Foreign observers -- picked by Mugabe from mostly sympathetic African countries -- said any irregularities were minor. But independent analysts said the damage was already done.

"Fear has been ingrained," said Brian Kogoro, chairman of Crisis in Zimbabwe, a coalition of non-governmental groups. "You could say it hangs over the heads of people like an invisible sword."

Many voters were afraid to say who they supported and turned their backs to television cameras.

Anne Kwenzi, a first-time voter at 21, said she put her ballot in the translucent box without marking it -- because she believed her vote was not secret.

Associated Press writers Nicole Itano and Michael Hartnack contributed to this report.

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