MDC faces impossible choice over Zimbabwe run-off vote

Taking part would allow Mugabe to steal election, opposition leaders fear

Zimbabwe's opposition leaders face an agonising dilemma today as they meet to decide whether to contest the second round of the presidential election against President Robert Mugabe.

On Friday, nearly five weeks after Zimbabweans went to the polls, the country's nominally independent election committee finally announced that Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had beaten Mr Mugabe. The margin of victory, 47.9 per cent to 43.2 per cent, contrasted with independent counts which put Mr Tsvangirai much closer to an overall majority and the MDC's claim that he had won 50.3 per cent of the vote, giving him outright victory.

Since the poll, on 29 March, MDC spokesmen have insisted that to take part in a run-off would amount to allowing Mr Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party to steal the election. The long delay in releasing the results, and the wave of violence that has engulfed former Zanu-PF strongholds, heightened suspicions that the government wanted to manipulate the first-round results and ensure victory the next time. "They needed to narrow the gap, so that they can justify a 'win' for Mugabe in the second round," said David Coltart, an opposition senator.

No date has yet been announced for any run-off. But the decision now facing Mr Tsvangirai and his colleagues is whether to refuse to take part, which would immediately hand victory to Mr Mugabe, or to go ahead, knowing that thousands of MDC supporters have already been assaulted, burned out of their homes, and in some cases killed. Since the poll, the MDC leader and his deputy, Tendai Biti, have remained outside the country, mainly in South Africa, for fear of arrest or attack. Mr Tsvangirai, who was badly beaten a year ago during a "prayer rally", has hinted that he fears for his life.

In Johannesburg Mr Biti reflected the difficult choice facing the MDC. He acknowledged that a boycott would give another term to the 84-year-old Mr Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for the 28 years since independence. But he said there could not be a run-off because Zimbabwe "is burning", with economic collapse as well as violence. He said the only way out of the stalemate was a power-sharing government led by Mr Tsvangirai, but with no role for Mr Mugabe.

International organisations have also cast doubt on whether conditions for a fair contest exist. Georgette Gagnon, Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said: "The ruling party's bloody crackdown on the opposition makes a free and fair run-off vote a tragic joke. The violence must stop and an impartial process be put in place before any new vote is held."

Apart from the violence in rural areas, police have arrested 15 to 20 officials of the Zimbabwe Election Commission on charges of vote-rigging for the MDC, raided the offices of the country's largest independent poll monitoring group, and staged a raid on the MDC headquarters in Harare, where hundreds were arrested.

The situation is worst in Zanu-PF's former strongholds in northern and eastern Zimbabwe, where it lost many seats to the MDC, forfeiting its parliamentary majority, and narrowly holding on in several others. Zanu-PF youth militias and "war veterans" have sought to punish voters for their disloyalty, with the crackdown reported to be most violent in Mashonaland East, near Harare.

Tiseke Kasambala, an HRW researcher who has travelled throughout Zimbabwe during the crisis, told The Independent on Sunday that during her latest tour, ending a week ago, she had been unable to return to several areas she had previously visited. Mashonaland East was "totally inaccessible", she said. "There are roadblocks everywhere, and nobody is allowed in or out. We have been told of people sleeping in the bush because their homes, crops and animals have been burned.

"Some have been injured in beatings, but are unable to get treatment. People have been forced to attend meetings and swear allegiance to Zanu-PF. If they don't, they are assumed to be MDC and beaten."

Ms Kasambala said she had seen burnt homesteads in Mashonaland West and Central provinces, and interviewed refugees in the eastern Manicaland region who spoke of widespread intimidation. "If the MDC goes for a run-off at this time, it can't win," she concluded, adding that Human Rights Watch was increasingly concerned at the humanitarian crisis caused by "state-sponsored violence".

The UN children's agency, Unicef, said there were growing reports of families fleeing their homes and added that aid groups were finding it increasingly difficult to operate.

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