Zimbabwe's main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will decide tomorrow whether to boycott what is seen as the country's most important election since independence. The run-off next week between the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe has been thrown into disarray by a state-sponsored campaign of terror designed to overturn the regime's first-round defeat and prolong the President's 28-year rule.
At least 85 people have been killed already in a campaign of political terrorism, according to independent sources, and many more are feared dead with fresh reports of violence flooding in from rural areas across the country every day.
In an open letter released yesterday, Mr Tsvangirai appeared to lend his backing to participation in the poll calling for "hope and courage". He signs off by saying: "On 27 June, let's finish it."
But intense pressure for a boycott has built up in recent days and many in the MDC have lost faith in the run-off. An emergency meeting in Harare tomorrow will make the final call, party sources told The Independent.
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC's spokesman, said the party's politburo and national executive committee comprising all of the party's representatives from the provinces would convene in the capital, Harare.
"We need a proper election that will give birth to a new dispensation of stability and democracy. The election that Robert Mugabe is shepherding us into next week is a farce. It's a charade and there is a strong body of opinion within the party that we should not be part of it at all," he said.
Mr Chamisa – who has in the past been badly beaten himself by Mr Mugabe's thugs – said that there were very strong arguments on both sides between those who wanted a boycott and those who did not want it. "We will on Sunday resolve the dispute between these two contending arguments," he said.
Extensive canvassing of opposition officials conducted by The Independent yesterday appeared to show a slim majority in favour of contesting the run-off, despite the mounting death toll. "We are angered by all that has happened and the brutality of it all but I am for participation," said one top MDC official. "We cannot give Mugabe the pleasure of getting declared president without an election. That's exactly what he [Mugabe] wants and let's not afford him that pleasure."
Mr Tsvangirai is said to have agreed with an appeal by the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, on Wednesday to scrap the run-off in favour of a negotiated settlement. Mr Mugabe rejected that proposal.
Mr Chamisa emphasised yesterday that decisions in the MDC were taken collectively. The spokesman said there were those who were worried that participation would dignify a fraudulent election and others who felt that a boycott would be a missed opportunity to prove that this election is not free and fair.
The MDC's secretary for legal affairs, Innocent Gonese, said he was in favour of participation.
There is now effective consensus in the international community that the run-off will not be free and fair, with increasingly strong criticism of the regime's actions being voiced by neighbouring countries through the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Roy Bennett, a leading MDC member, told South African television news yesterday that the onslaught of violence will not stop Mr Tsvangirai from participating. Zimbabweans have been "brutalised", he said. "Beaten up. On the backdrop of that we have to compete in these elections to show the total illegitimacy of them." Mr Bennett said events so far should give the international community "reason to intervene, or reason to speak out", but he criticised regional efforts led by South Africa, adding that Mr Mbeki should step down as mediator "and start speaking out". David Coltart, an opposition senator, said that while he would not be taking part in the MDC decision, as he is part of a separate faction, he hoped to avoid a boycott. "We have no choice but to participate. It's like a war zone but if one pulls out one hands it to Mugabe and to that extent we have to make him go through the process and force him to steal it."
Observers from Western countries have been barred. The 14-nation SADC is sending 380 monitors for the vote. The independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which played a key role in recording the first round of voting, said that only 500 of its 8,800 local monitors had been accredited. And reports emerged last night that entire rural districts were barring opposition polling agents. At the same time polling stations are being positioned on land given to the same so-called war veterans who are responsible for some of the worst violence.
Meanwhile, a magistrate rejected a bid yesterday to release the MDC's secretary general. Tendai Biti is being held on treason charges that could carry the death penalty. He was ordered to remain behind bars until 7 July, although the High Court is due to hear an application for bail on Tuesday.
Excerpts from opposition leader's letter
My Fellow Zimbabweans in Civil Society,
Once again our democratic movement is under attack. Together now we must decide how best to deal with a regime that has lost its way and now relies solely on oppression and brutality to hang on to power.
We must continue to fight for the will of our people to prevail, without losing sight of the democratic principles that drive us, inspire us and unite us. We must continue together to stay true to our ideals and together chart a way forward out of this disaster.
As the regime tries to crush all of us, we must stand together as one. If we fall into despair or disarray, my friends, the regime will have succeeded in its evil machinations to divide and discourage us. The democratic movement as a whole was victorious on 29 March and that resulted directly from our unity of purpose.
The crisis engulfing us now is the most serious since our liberation from the minority regime of Ian Smith. Indeed, the wave of brutality being inflicted upon our people is reminiscent of the worst days of that evil regime ...
My friends, many of us carry the scars inflicted by the regime during the course of its slide into brutality and oppression. Many of us have dark nights thinking about the suffering we have seen and thus far not been able to halt. I do not fear more scars. The only thing I fear is not doing everything in my power to stop the suffering.
Please continue to join us in our peaceful struggle for a new Zimbabwe ...
Let us all be bold and of good courage together in the days ahead. Rather than descend into utter despair, let us instead remember the victory of the people on 29 March.
We need your help. Help us to remind our people that they are the winners. That their courageous decision on 29 March was not in vain. Help us encourage them to vote again for change on 27 June. Help us protect them from the regime's attempt to destroy their hope.
My friends, the regime is weak, but we are strong. The regime is lost, but we are guided by the principles of truth and freedom. The regime is illegitimate but we have the support of the people. And indeed one day the evil forces within the regime will fail, while we, together, will triumph.
On 27 June, let's finish it!