Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zimbabwe: "I dare you to protest against the outcome of the elections and you will see what will happen to you"

Political tension hit a new high in Zimbabwe on the eve of crucial general elections at the weekend in which an embattled President Robert Mugabe will be seeking a sixth consecutive term in office.

The veteran leader, 84, helped set the tone in a campaign speech in the eastern border town of Nyanga on Thursday, when in response to opposition allegations of planned rigging, dared them to come on the streets to demonstrate.

“We have received information that the opposition has promised to make violent protests after losing the elections. I dare you to protest against the outcome of the elections and you will see what will happen to you. We want people to vote in peace, but no nonsense after my victory.”

The military, whose commanders have said they would not recognise any president other than Mugabe, deployed Soviet-era tanks on the streets of the capital, Harare, on Thursday night.

Police Commissioner General, Augustine Chihuri, who spoke on behalf of the commanders said: “Those who have been breathing fire about Kenyan-style violence should be warned. We are not going to allow a situation where individuals arrogate themselves the roles of election officials and announce themselves winners at any stage of the electoral process.”

Mugabe is being challenged by Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and former finance minister Simba Makoni, who is running as an independent. The harmonised elections will see Zimbabweans for the first time electing local councillors, members of parliament, senators and the president on the same day on 29 March.

Free and fair?

Despite the opposition claims of a fixing of the ballot, and the authorities threats to crackdown on dissent, the election campaign had, up until this week, been unusually quiet.

Mashonaland East has traditionally been a ZANU-PF stronghold, where the opposition had all but been outlawed. But when IRIN visited a shopping centre in Mutoko, MDC posters outnumbered those of ZANU-PF candidates.

People mingled and shared a traditional brew wearing campaign regalia from different political parties - something unheard of in the past. Seventy-year-old Rinos Bwanya, a ZANU-PF supporter, told IRIN that political violence did not benefit anybody.

“In the past, senior ZANU-PF officials would come to our villages and encourage us to harass or beat up opposition supporters. This always caused divisions and enmity until way after the elections. Over time, it has come to our realisation that politicians from the ruling party and the opposition get along very well … we have realised that we were being used for their own selfish ends.”

His nephew, 25-year-old Peter Chirume, a staunch opposition supporter, concurred.
“I see no reason why anybody should try to make me an enemy of my uncle over simple things like political allegiance. Political violence is an indication of just how barbaric people can become. Can you imagine what would happen if all big football teams in the world resorted to beating up football followers to support them?”

The African Union election observer team has acknowledged the low levels of political violence ahead of Saturday’s poll. The head of the observer team, former Sierra Leone president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, said: “Since we arrived, we have been looking around; we saw that the place was peaceful.”

However, while even the opposition has acknowledged the decline in levels of political intimidation, commentators have warned that it does not mean the election will be clean.

Takura Zhangazha, a political analyst, said ZANU-PF were keen to be seen as legitimate victors, rather than having intimidated their way back into power. “ZANU-PF is very confident of winning these elections, not because of its popularity but because it knows that it is in charge of the electoral management systems which it can manipulate in its favour.”

How many voters?

Tendai Biti, secretary general in the main faction of the MDC, said they had established that nine million ballots had been printed, although the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced two weeks ago that 5.9 million people had registered to vote.

ZEC chairman, George Chiweshe, a retired soldier, told the media this week that extra ballots had been printed to cater for any eventualities.

Luke Tamborinyoka, the director of information in the MDC, told IRIN that did not make sense. “There have been a lot of deaths, while other people have moved to other countries in search of a better life, while many will not be able to vote for different reasons … What ZANU-PF and ZEC are trying to do [by printing extra ballots] is to create an environment where rigging can take place.”

Arthur Mutambara, leader of the rival wing of the MDC, who put aside his presidential ambitions to support Makoni, told IRIN that the opposition would be united in the fight against electoral fraud. “What we want to tell Mugabe is that there will be a united response from the democratic forces to defend their victory. Electoral theft will not be tolerated.”

The opposition and civil society have warned that recent amendments to electoral laws making it mandatory for police officers to assist people inside the voting booth to cast their ballots amounted to intimidation and electoral fraud.

Although 8,000 people applied for postal ballots, ZEC has not denied reports that it printed 600,000 postal ballots. In another potentially serious loophole, the opposition has also alleged that an audit of the voters’ roll had established that people who died more than two decades ago were still on the register.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.

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