The last stand

As the country goes to the polls, out correspondent finds the people daring to hope for a new dawn
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The Independent Online

Zimbabweans go to the polls today in the most important elections since the country won independence from Britain 28 years ago, amid increasing signs that Robert Mugabe's historic hold on the southern African country could be slipping.

Fears remain that a ground-swell of anger at the 84- year-old President and the perilous state of the once-prosperous nation, could be thwarted by a systematic campaign of election rigging and voter intimidation. Independent observers have already dismissed government insistence that the poll will be free and fair.

Armoured personnel carriers mounted with water cannons patrolled the high-density suburbs in the country's two largest cities yesterday as security services loyal to the ageing President said they were on "high alert" and issued a stern warning that public protests would not be tolerated. The chiefs of the armed forces, police and the widely feared internal intelligence agency gathered in the capital, Harare, to say that they were "up to the task in thwarting all threats to national security" during today's general election.

But large numbers of people across the country have crowded into late election rallies in recent days and activists have openly defied the Mugabe regime in an unprecedented show of public support for the opposition.

Packed pick-up trucks decked in the colours of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) defied a heavy police presence to tour the second city, Bulawayo, yesterday, in scenes that would have been impossible at previous elections.

The electoral threats to the octogenarian are two-fold: the former union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who many believe defeated Mr Mugabe in 2002 only to have that election stolen from him, is predicting a strong showing; and for the first time there is a challenger from within the ruling party in the respected former finance minister, Simba Makoni. One of the three rivals will need to secure an outright majority in results which are expected tomorrow afternoon, otherwise the presidential poll will go to a run-off in three weeks.

The pessimism engendered by a divided opposition and blatant gerrymandering by the ruling party which has redrawn the electoral map of Zimbabwe, has given way to a genuine feeling that the Mugabe regime may be more vulnerable than before.

"Hope is in the air," said Paul Temba Nyathi, a leading lieutenant of Mr Makoni, whose challenge has enraged the President. At the Makoni election offices in Bulawayo, he said there had been an upsurge in support for Mr Makoni in the closing weeks of the campaign. "We are confident that the people of Zimbabwe can deal a crushing defeat to Mugabe. People tend to credit him with supernatural powers but he is an 84-year-old man and sooner or later even he must come to an end."

Concern has been mounting that an obvious attempt to steal the vote by the Mugabe regime could spark a violent backlash similar to that witnessed recently in Kenya. The opposition leaders have issued a joint statement expressing their severe concerns at the conduct of the election.

Among the mounting evidence of vote-rigging were a refusal to grant the opposition access to the voters' roll; the appearance of thousands of "ghost voters" on the register; and the placing of police inside polling stations. In one district north of Harare, the MDC discovered 8,000 people had been registered to vote in a tiny area with just 36 homes.

And there is a serious shortage of polling stations in urban areas, which tend to favour the opposition, guaranteeing long queues today. Mr Tsvangirai, who shot back to prominence last year after he was badly beaten by police who broke up a party meeting, has cut a more aggressive figure than in past campaigns. He has called on supporters to stay behind at polling stations after they have voted to "protect" their votes. He also urged public servants not to assist in fraud. "Mugabe cannot rig elections by himself," he said. "If someone tells you to falsify the results, ignore the instructions, because it is unlawful."

Government claims that the opposition has been granted equal access to state media appeared implausible. Yesterday morning's state-owned Herald newspaper ran several full-page advertisements denouncing the opposition and labelling Mr Tsvangirai as the "white man's tea-boy" and accusing him of a plot to hand farms back to whites.

Once the unchallenged hero of the independence movement the former schoolteacher turned President has seen his popular support slide and his country engulfed in economic chaos. Hyperinflation has soared to 200,000 per cent and life expectancy among women is the lowest in the world at 34. Unemployment runs at above 90 per cent as the formal economy has all but disappeared and the majority survive on remittances sent home from the millions in exile from a country once among the most prosperous in Africa. The charity Save the Children said the number of Zimbabwean children who die before their fifth birthday has more than doubled since independence.

Mr Mugabe has proven adept at holding on to power, over-seeing a vast system of patronage. He and his ruling Zanu-PF party are hoping the opposition support split between the Tsvangirai and Makoni campaigns will be enough to halt a landslide against him. With little or no reliable opinion-polling, census data or sense of where the loyalties of the rank and file police and army lie, Zimbabwe votes in a state of unprecedented uncertainty.