Mugabe 'victory' may be trigger for strike action

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The Independent Online

Zimbabweans seemed resigned to a "victory" by Robert Mugabe's as flawed presidential elections ended yesterday, although they were fearful of civil unrest and a government clampdown on opposition critics.

Leaders of non-government umbrella groups met to discuss court action and a possible countrywide strike in reaction to a poll they believe has been stolen and which saw mass arrests and harassment of opposition agents and supporters, the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of eligible voters, and widespread reports of electoral fraud.

While the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, still stands a slim chance of winning, it is widely believed that the country's ruler for 22 years has triumphed after a campaign of violence and intimidation, and manipulation of the poll.

As vote counting began in 120 constituencies, international observers announced that the election had failed to meet broadly accepted criteria for a free and fair poll.

The umbrella groups, The Crisis in Zimbabwe Committee and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, also hit out at what they called an "anything but free and fair election".

The network's chairman, Reginald Matchaba-Hove, warned that "a flawed electoral process is a potential cause of conflict", and urged the public "to remain calm but firm, resolute even after the results are released". The network said the poll "has been poisoned to such an extent that there is unlikely to be any other result" than a victory for Mr Mugabe.

The two groups condemned, among other things, state-sponsored violence, coercion and torture before and during the election; the disenfranchising of voters through a chaotic, secret registration proces; the printing of extra ballot papers and restrictions on the accompanying of ballot boxes; control of voter education by a militarised electoral commission, and withholding of crucial electoral information.

They also expressed "great concern" about the reduction of polling stations in cities, the accrediting of only a few hundred out of 15,000 would-be civil society observers and the banning of non-sympathetic international observers and unequal access to the state-controlled media. They further complained about the confiscation of identity cards by supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF and the selective enforcement of the law by security forces.

John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group's Africa programme, warned that "the risk of major violence erupting is exceedingly high.

"Deep resentment combined with economic desperation has created a pressure cooker in parts of Zimbabwe: there is every chance of an explosion if the results are seen to be fixed. Mr Mugabe's massive deployment of loosely controlled youth militias and warlord war veterans makes it likely that there will be a bloody reaction to any mass protest or rioting," he said.

Mr Prendergast said that pre-poll surveys had shown "overwhelming support" for Mr Tsvangirai in cities and majority support for him across the country as a whole.

His group "observed paltry turnouts at rural stations where the government is claiming massive voting" and spoke to voters who had walked away from huge queues in Harare, where voting was excessively slow, the number of stations slashed, and thousands of citizens expelled from the voters' roll with no explanation. Polling stations remained closed on Monday morning in defiance of a court order.

In rural parts, the government beat and threatened MDC agents, keeping them away from nearly half of all stations and "making it much easier to stuff ballot boxes" given the paucity of observers, placed youth militia camps near stations to intimidate voters, and "suddenly doubled the number" of rural, traditionally Zanu-PF voters "through a secret process".

Official voter turnout statistics are worrying. Despite predictions by analysts of a high turnout in cities and a lower one in rural areas, where Mr Mugabe traditionally enjoys his greatest support, the opposite happened, according to an analysis by the Combined Harare Residents' Association.

While similar percentages of people in cities are said to have voted last weekend as in the parliamentary elections of June 2000 – for instance 50 per cent in Harare (47 per cent in 2000) – there has been a dramatic jump in Zanu-PF support in Mashonaland Central, with a reported turnout of 75 per cent (56 per cent in 2000).

"There is no way only 50 per cent voted in Harare," said Mike Davies, of the Residents' Association. "These figures are unacceptable".

Meanwhile, the MDC's secretary general, Welshman Ncube, was formally charged with high treason in the Harare magistrates' court after his arrest on Monday at a roadblock in south-west Zimbabwe while en route with his family to Botswana, he says for a break. He was freed on bail of Z$500,000 (£6,400), and a trial date was set for 30 April.