Mugabe opponents forced to campaign at dead of night

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The Independent Online

Thatched homes and bushes flash by, lit only by a glorious full moon as we speed north in the dead of night. Pamphlets spew out behind us and flutter wildly to the ground.

There are more than 30,000 fliers promoting Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the back. My companions are on the election trail for an opposition party so harassed by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government that it has mostly gone underground, using the cover of night to strew pamphlets, emails and a "whispering campaign" to reach voters with its messages.

More than 100 MDC rallies have been prohibited by the police, and many that have been held have been violently disrupted by government supporters who have for months also been campaigning at night – manning roadblocks or roaming from door to door, beating or harassing people who do not have Zanu-PF cards.

There have been tens of thousands of reported cases of violence and intimidation, and some 100 MDC supporters murdered, in the two years since Zanu-PF panicked at the prospect of losing power to a swelling opposition after two decades in power.

Matabeleland is an MDC stronghold, but there is still reason to fear intimidation. Our truck's numberplates are false, and the men tossing pamphlets are nervous. "If we come across another vehicle, duck so you can't be seen," says one. "If we get chased, hold on tight."

The province is home to the Ndebele, descendants of dissident Zulus who fled north from King Shaka's expanding empire in the 19th century. At a recent rally in Matabeleland, Mr Mugabe reportedly warned the Ndebele that if they voted against him they should "pack their bags" and go back to South Africa.

In the 1980s, Mr Mugabe sent in the brutal Fifth Brigade, which crushed dissent among the Ndebele minority at the cost of 20,000 lives. Surveys forecast that Mr Mugabe will win, at most, 30 per cent of the popular vote. Faced with loss of power and the collapse of a patronage system that has richly rewarded party loyalty with jobs, money and land, Zanu-PF is resorting to desperate measures.

Officials in two provinces are reported to have told villagers to line up behind their headmen at the poll "so that it would be known how they voted".

Everything is being done to make up the potential shortfall in votes, from the selective registration of voters to reducing the number of polling stations in MDC-supporting urban areas while increasing those in rural parts. The Electoral Supervisory Commission has been stuffed with security officials and the state-controlled broadcasting corporation is becoming ever more partisan.

While many Zimbabweans fear electoral manipulation may enable Mr Mugabe to squeak to victory, in Matabeleland people are confident that he will finally be forced to retire.

In some areas, Zanu-PF has run out of membership cards due to soaring demand from people who want the protection they bring, but nobody is fooled. "I managed to get one," said a businessman in Bulawayo. "But even the guy selling them supports the MDC."

Zimbabwe's draconian press reporting restrictions make it a crime for unregistered foreign correspondents to report from there. As a result, our correspondent cannot be named.