Zimbabwean police arrested 31 opposition supporters yesterday in a violent raid on a training session of polling agents in Harare.
It was the latest example of pre-election unrest that has brought the country to the brink of suspension from the Commonwealth. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is challenging 78-year-old President Robert Mugabe in hopes of ending his 22-year rule.
Leaders meeting at the Commonwealth summit at the weekend are due to consider suspending Zimbabwe for its wholesale flouting of democratic rules but appear resigned to the prospect of action being deferred until after the election. As Tony Blair flew to the summit in Australia, his officials conceded that the meeting was unlikely to reach agreement on sanctions against Zimbabwe because of the imminence of the presidential election on 9-10 March.
The Prime Minister wants Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth but admits there is no consensus among the 54 Commonwealth countries. The most that Mr Blair can expect to win is a call for "free and fair" elections, with the issue of action against Zimbabwe put off until after the poll.
A spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Learnmore Jongwe, said police who raided the training meeting in Harare yesterday, beating up nine people in the building, gave no reason except that it was an "illegal gathering".
However, he pointed out that the training of polling agents, who will monitor the vote, was in line with electoral laws. Mr Jongwe said: "We condemn the arrests and the attacks, especially from the police who are there to protect us. It is part of a disturbing pattern in which police are at the forefront of attacks on members of the MDC."
However, police said the MDC supporters were trailed back to the building after a clash with Zanu-PF supporters.
It was also reported yesterday that hundreds of Zimbabweans have vanished from the voters' rolls days ahead of the elections. They will join hundreds of thousands of mostly opposition supporters who have been in effect disenfranchised by a government apparently intent on rigging the poll in its favour.
Despite a decision on Wednesday by the Supreme Court theoretically opening the way for hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans living abroad to vote by post, in practice, they and others missing from the roll are unlikely to be able to cast their ballots.
The government said yesterday that it would abide by the judges' ruling. But the MDC's justice spokesman, David Coltart, said the government had neither the will nor the ability to organise postal votes or reinstate missing names before the election.
"At this stage, it is unlikely that thousands of eligible voters who have gone missing from the roll will be reinstated. It is a cynical move by Zanu PF, which knows that in practice appeals against disenfranchisement will just clog up the courts and will not be heard in time," he said.
However, thousands of disenfranchised expatriates, including Britons, will be able to vote after the high court extended the deadline for expatriates to end dual citizenship – although some 2,400 Britons had to revoke their Zimbabwean citizenship by January.
According to the influential Financial Gazette, the newly disenfranchised, among them senior MDC officials, join some 3,000 voters already removed from the roll by the registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede. Although many have appealed to have their names reinstated, the MDC fears many others who do not realise their names are missing will be turned away at polling stations.
Mr Mudede blamed "human error" but the MDC believes opposition supporters are being "systematically struck off" to rig the vote. An MDC spokesman, Paul Themba Nyathi, said: "I can confidently say that a sizeable chunk of voters between 18 and 25 will not be able to vote."
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.