Vote for opposition and you won't get food, villages told

Among the withered crops and dried-up riverbeds in southern Zimbabwe, people are in a sullen mood. The general elections are just four days away, but few people expect their votes to make a difference. President Robert Mugabe has already set up all the systems in place to make sure his ruling party, Zanu-PF, wins a majority of seats in parliament. The government has control of the electoral roll and polling stations, and people in rural areas have been warned that villages that vote for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will be denied food.

Among the withered crops and dried-up riverbeds in southern Zimbabwe, people are in a sullen mood. The general elections are just four days away, but few people expect their votes to make a difference. President Robert Mugabe has already set up all the systems in place to make sure his ruling party, Zanu-PF, wins a majority of seats in parliament. The government has control of the electoral roll and polling stations, and people in rural areas have been warned that villages that vote for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will be denied food.

In the last parliamentary elections in 2000, opposition supporters were arrested, beaten and tortured. This time, the methods are more subtle but equally effective.

Asa Sibanda, 82, an MDC supporter from a village in Insiza in the south of the country, is convinced government officials burnt down her kitchen last month.

"The fire started in the middle of the night, and I know I had not left anything cooking in there," she said. "All the villagers came to console me, but the Zanu-PF officials did not come. I don't know what happened but I think they burnt my house."

Mrs Sibanda will probably never find out just who or what destroyed her kitchen, but she and her neighbours believe Zanu-PF was responsible; it will make others wary of supporting opposition parties.

"The violence is not obvious, but it does not mean it is not there," said Sarah (not her real name), a Zimbabwean human rights worker in Bulawayo. "Now there is emotional violence - people are afraid that their houses will be burnt, or that violence can erupt anywhere at any time."

When Mr Mugabe set 31 March as the election date, he had banked on a good harvest. He had hoped the grain stores would be filled with maize so that people would have full bellies and would vote for his party.

But the rains have failed. The government has been criticised for failing to get seeds and fertilisers to farmers on time, and the controversial land reform policy - which took land away from most of Zimbabwe's white farmers and gave it to his black supporters - has not been a success. This month, Mr Mugabe admitted that only 44 per cent of the seized land was being used properly.

The new farmers have been unable to raise loans because they do not have the title deeds to the farms they own. So they cannot buy equipment, seeds and fertilisers to plant their crops. In many cases, the original farm invaders, who took control of the white farms under Mr Mugabe's orders, have been thrown off the land to make way for senior Zanu-PF officials.

The few white farmers whoremain complain that all their equipment is being stolen. "Thieves actually dug all the parts of my borehole," said Rebecca (not her real name), one farmer's wife standing outside her local church on a Sunday morning.

"They had carefully cut out the pipes. I am sure the thieves were other farmers who only stole it because their own pumps had broken and they could not afford to have them repaired."

Despite the dire economic crisis, Mr Mugabe has chosen to campaign on an anti-British platform, urging voters to "Bury Blair". Most people in the rural areas where Zanu-PF has the strongest support have no idea who Tony Blair is - and the few in the towns who have heard of Mr Blair dismiss the slogan as nonsense.

No one now has any confidence that Mr Mugabe's government can improve the economy.

Iden Wetherell, a Zimbabwean journalist who works for two of the few remaining independent newspapers, said: "The challenge for modern leaders is to be able to govern a modern economy and deliver GDP growth, an increase in per capita income. Mugabe has been an utter failure - he has no idea how to run the economy, so he just churns out the old mantras of colonialism and hopes no one will notice."

Zimbabweans fear that after the election, once observers and journalists have gone home, things will get worse. A new NGO bill will soon make it impossible for any human rights group to operate in the country unless it can prove that all its staff are Zimbabwean and that it receives absolutely no funding from abroad.

"People know hardly anything about their rights," said Sarah. "This government has made its own people feel so scared and weak that they don't realise they are entitled to enough food to eat and the ability to sleep peacefully in their beds."

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