Mugabe forces soldiers and police to support him in early vote

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The Independent Online

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has secured a comfortable head start of at least 130,000 votes through rigged voting by members of the security forces in this month's run-off election against the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, according to information obtained by The Independent.

Members of the army, air force and police have been forced to cast ballots in favour of Mr Mugabe at their barracks and stations. It is not unusual for members of the security forces to cast their votes ahead of polling day. But the decision to force them to fill the ballots for Mr Mugabe in front of their station superiors is unusual, and is blatantly illegal, sources said.

Although coercive voting of this kind has been attempted before, military sources said it was considerably worse this time, with spouses and children – particularly those living in barracks and police camps – also being forced to fill ballots for Mr Mugabe.

It is estimated that Mr Mugabe could have at least 130,000 to 150,000 votes before actual balloting begins on 27 June. That would give the President a comfortable advantage in what could be a close election. In the strongest condemnation so far of the Mugabe government, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, attacked what he called the "sadism" of the regime. Mr Miliband also warned the South African government that it had a responsibility to take decisive action in the face of the worsening crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"Some things can be done and the first thing is to be clear about the sadism – and I use that word advisedly – going on in places, especially north of Harare," Mr Miliband said. "People are being killed, people are being tortured, people are being beaten. Election observers are being stripped out. It is important that we speak plainly and frankly about that," he added.

Mr Mugabe declared yesterday that he was prepared to hand over power, but only to an ally from within his own ruling party. Such an ally must nevertheless have demonstrated his ability to "keep Zimbabwe away from the white man".

His remarks, which followed a threat on Saturday to "declare war" if he is voted out of power, further entrench fears that Zimbabwe will be plunged into bloodshed if he loses the run-off. Shocking incidents of political violence have already been recorded including cases of suspected opposition supporters being brutally beaten, tortured, burnt and killed. Meanwhile, aid agencies have been ordered to stop distributing aid as the regime uses starvation as a tactic to secure the poll.

The state-sponsored violence has forced tens of thousands of opposition supporters to flee their homes. This, in effect, disenfranchises them, because of a requirement, being stringently enforced, that voters can only cast their ballots at polling booths in the wards in which they are registered as voters.

Mr Mugabe has flatly rejected a proposal by the opposition to convert the whole country into a single constituency for the purposes of voting in the presidential run-off. Since voters will not be selecting candidates for specific parliamentary seats, the single constituency system would have allowed voters to cast their ballots anywhere in the country on production of their identity cards without resort to a defective voters roll. The simplified system was used in a national referendum on a new constitution that Mr Mugabe resoundingly lost in 2000.

In the presidential election, Mr Tsvangirai won the first round of voting on 29 March by 47 per cent to Mr Mugabe's 43 per cent. In presidential elections in 2002, condemned by the world as flawed, Mr Tsvangirai lost to Mr Mugabe by a narrow 400,000 votes. The early rigging of votes therefore spells a danger to opposition hopes.

Since his return to Zimbabwe, Mr Tsvangirai has been arrested on a daily basis and his campaigning disrupted. His deputy, Tendai Biti, is in jail and is expected to be charged with treason for declaring that his party had won elections before the results were officially released. The charges potentially carry the death penalty.

Several retired African presidents including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Joacquim Chissano of Mozambique and others have joined the former UN secretaries general Kofi Annan and Boutras Ghali in signing a petition calling upon Mr Mugabe to ensure free and fair elections.