Friday, June 27, 2008

Zimbabwe's one-candidate presidential runoff

HARARE - Zimbabwe's one-candidate presidential runoff got off to a slow start Friday, with the vote seen as an exercise that won't solve the country's political crisis — and may even deepen it.

World leaders have dismissed the runoff, which follows a campaign of state-sponsored violence so intense the opposition candidate declared he could not run, leaving a defiant Robert Mugabe as the only candidate. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in a voting day message to supporters distributed by e-mail, said the results of the balloting would "reflect only the fear of the people of Zimbabwe."

During the first round in March, hundreds of people were at polling stations by the time they opened at 7 a.m. On Friday, 10 people were at Harare's main polling station at opening time and even fewer were seen at other stations. Observers expected Mugabe to ensure his supporters would turn out in large numbers and use violence and intimidation to get others to the polls to vote for him. There was no sign of that in the capital early Friday, but groups of the young men who have been the ruling party's enforcers were on the streets. While some polling officials were still getting ready at 7 a.m., the station opened on time in Mbare, a crowded Harare neighborhood that is an opposition stronghold. Eight people at the Mbare station at opening time were quick to vote.

On the campaign trail Thursday, Mugabe said he was "open to discussion" with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but only after the vote. Mugabe had shown little interest in talks and his government had scoffed at Tsvangirai's call Wednesday to work together to form a transitional authority. Citing the violence, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff Sunday, leaving longtime President Mugabe the only candidate. Tsvangirai's name remained on the ballot — electoral officials say Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal too late.

Tsvangirai, in his voting day message, also said he expected voters to be threatened, to be told to record their ballot paper numbers and to have their votes recorded by cameras. He advised them not to resist. "God knows what is in your heart. Don't risk your lives," he said in the message.

Tsvangirai was first in a field of four in the first round of elections. The official tally said he did not gain the votes necessary to avoid a runoff against the second place finisher, Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly three decades. Tsvangirai's party and its allies won control of parliament in the March elections, dislodging Mugabe's party for the first time since independence in 1980.

Mugabe was once hailed as a post-independence leader committed to development and reconciliation, but in recent years has been denounced as a dictator intent only on holding onto power.

Efforts to dislodge him at the ballot box have repeatedly been stymied by fraud and intimidation. Kubatana, a Web site forum for independent Zimbabwean human rights groups, said Mugabe appeared ready to use force to stage-manage a large turnout in his favor Friday. It reported supporters were manning illegal roadblocks on main streets and highways where police were not present.

Witnesses reported nine checkpoints on a 120-mile stretch of highway from the eastern city of Mutare, five of them manned only by militants. Kubatana reported witnesses saying Mugabe supporters told voters to turn out for Friday's poll in large numbers to give Mugabe a landslide win and those without indelible ink stains from polling stations on their fingers would be seen as opposition supporters boycotting the vote in support of Tsvangirai's withdrawal from the runoff. As during the first round, individual polling stations will have to post tallies, an innovation hammered out in talks between the opposition and Mugabe's party mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki. That allowed the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the opposition to compile their own results, making fraud difficult. But this time, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network said it was unable to field monitors because they had not been accredited by the government. And the opposition, boycotting the vote, also will not be monitoring results.

The African Union; the Southern African Development Community, the main regional bloc; and African parliamentarians were observing the runoff, but many believe they would not have sufficient people on the ground to make a difference.

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