Opposition urged to boycott polls after Mugabe rigs election

Zimbabwe's main opposition party is under pressure to boycott elections after President Robert Mugabe brazenly rigged a by-election in an opposition stronghold at the weekend.

Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF won the Lupane by-election by 883 votes, polling 10,069 against the MDC's 9,186.

The seat fell vacant on the death of David Mpala, an MPC member. His health had deteriorated rapidly since being tortured by Zanu-PF supporters in 2002. The ruling party lost the Lupane seat in the 2000 parliamentary elections by about 10,000 votes.

Critics questioned how Mr Mugabe's party could win the by-election when the situation in Zimbabwe had dramatically worsened since 2000, with inflation peaking at 600 per cent and people barely able to afford the basics.

Independent Zimbabwean monitors said the election win could only have been achieved by the brazen rigging they had seen in Lupane. They accused Mr Mugabe of bussing in people from neighbouring constituencies to vote.

The MDC said opposition campaigners were abducted and tortured. Villagers were told they would not be eligible for famine relief if they did not vote for the ruling party. Mr Mugabe's youth militia intimidated and assaulted voters and a journalist, Savious Kwinika, was left for dead. But Zanu-PF said the victory was legitimate because Zimbabweans had now realised that the MDC was a "puppet" of Britain.

The victory also underlined the "success" of the land reform programme under which thousands of white-owned farms had been redistributed to blacks, the party said.

Professor Lovemore Madhuku, the leader of the largest civic group, the National Constitutional Assembly, said that the MDC's strategy of contesting elections then crying foul after losing was senseless. "These are not elections but pre-determined processes that the MDC is merely giving legitimacy by its participation," Professor Madhuku said. "What they need to do now is to join us in the fight for a democratic constitution and an acceptable electoral framework before they contest these sham elections."

Elections in Zimbabwe are run by an electoral commission handpicked by Mr Mugabe and stuffed with army officers.

The MDC is barred from state-run broadcasts and print media. A spokesman, Paul Themba Nyathi, said elections "had become a major farce". But there was no consensus on whether to boycott polls.

* South African President Thabo Mbeki has been given a 24-hour ultimatum to guarantee that 70 suspected mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe will not be extradited to Equatorial Guinea, where they face summary execution.

Lawyers representing the men want Mr Mbeki to seek their extradition to South Africa, arguing that he has a constitutional responsibilty to help South African citizens arrested in countries where they have no chance of getting justice "even in its most elementary forms". The alleged mercernaries are mainly from South Africa.

The lawyers have said that unless Mr Mbeki takes steps to save the men from certain death, they would take the South African leader to the High Court in Pretoria to try and secure his intervention.

The men were arrested at Harare International Airport on 7 March. Zimbabwean officials said they were on their way to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. The men said they were going to guard a mine in the Congo.

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