Zimbabwe: Big queues for bread, but little enthusiasm for election charade

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The Independent Online

Two lines of people at dawn yesterday told the story of an unwanted election in Zimbabwe. The first queue stretched in an L-shape, more than 200 strong, waiting for bread. In the adjacent lot four policemen guarded a polling station where three people waited to vote.

The crowds that gathered from dawn til dusk three months ago in the hope of voting freely stayed away yesterday from a “one-man election” that has been almost universally condemned as a charade.

The huge support that Robert Mugabe is expected to boast of today was invisible on the empty streets of the capital, Harare, where police and militia were out in force from first light.

The systematic effort to beat out the vote that followed the 84-year-old president’s first-round defeat, and left more than 100 dead and thousands tortured, left him as the only candidate in the race but appears to have done nothing to rebuild his popular support.

Of the dozen polling stations across the capital visited by The Independent during the morning there were no more than a handful of voters. In somem cases there were none at all.

In the middle-class suburb of Strathaven the cynical government ploy of releasing flour stocks for the first time this week backfired as people flocked to the bread line, not the polling station.

“They should put the poll station next to the bread if they wanted to get some votes,” joked one man waiting to buy a loaf.

The euphoria that marked the most important election since independence gave way yesterday to an exhausting tension. Police road blocks were ubiquitous as were Mugabe posters demanding “one last push for total control”.

In Mbare, one of the poorest districts south of the city, the morning’s trickle of voters became a march after ruling party officials press-ganged reluctant locals into the queues. Witnesses saw militia beating people with sticks, while at one station people’s names were read aloud from a register as they entered the voting tent.

A local vendor who refused to be identified said people had no choice.

“Many are standing there in the line so that the Zanu people will see them.”

He pointed out three men wearing slings who he said were opposition activists. They had been told to fake the arm injuries so that polling agents would be called on to help them vote and “make sure they vote Mugabe”.

Elsewhere, people improvised by rubbing fingers with people who had just voted to get the ink stain that could mean the difference between life and death in the retributions some fear will follow.

In some areas terrified people “registered” their vote at ruling party command centres showing their fingers as proof. Already last night others who had no ink stain to show were being rounded up in Harare.

Speaking from his refuge in the Dutch Embassy opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who won the first round of voting by a clear margin, said the vote “reflected only the fear of the people".

"What is happening today is not an election. It is an exercise in mass intimidation."

The rural areas which have witnessed the worst of a terror campaign where people have been routinely beaten, raped and mutilated were effectively sealed off from the outside world. Reports told of ballot stuffing, arson threats and voters being marched to polling stations.

The thousands of independent monitors and opposition polling agents who fanned out across the country for the 29 March poll were not there to bear witness. The Mugabe regime has barred many foreign journalists from reporting in the country and even local reporters were attacked for questioning people in a city-centre breadline yesterday.

The result is expected to be announced swiftly in contrast to the marathon delays last time, showing a predetermined “realistic” turn-out of 1.6 million for Mugabe, according to the MDC’s election director, Ian Makoni.

“The turn-out was very low, the public took heed of our call not to take part. The figures they are going to release are meaningless.

“The election we recognise happened in March and it made Morgan Tsvangirai the legitimate president.

An official polling agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no comparison between the first and second rounds. By mid-afternoon at one of the busiest polling stations outside the capital he had counted fewer than 100 people. “In the last round they were queuing around the block,” he said by telephone.

The first round defeat appears to have taken the president and the military junta by surprise. In the crisis that ensued Mr Mugabe’s top generals and financiers, the Joint Operations Command, decided to hit back with a ruthless and well organised campaign to beat the opposition into submission and take the second round by force.

That strategy was derailed by the MDC’s decision to withdraw from the run-off saying the country resembled a “war zone” and denouncing the poll as a “sham”. That stance has won strong Western backing and also drawn unprecedented support from African leaders past and present.

The international dissent has left the former liberation hero Mugabe with a crisis of legitimacy that he will attempt to confront today as he flies to Cairo to attend an African Union meeting.

Mr Makoni said that the international community must now “act” against Mugabe: “They have got to apply a lot of pressure. That's what happened at the end of Apartheid and the same can happen here.”

The regime will hope that the false calm in Harare’s empty polling stations will be enough to persuade regional SADC observers to sanction yesterday’s vote. But they need look no further than the South African embassy for evidence of what has really happened. Hundreds of refugees from the violence were huddled there yesterday in white tents. Clothes were left to dry on the razor wire fence and infants were washed in buckets, while adults walked around half naked to display the wounds they inflicted on them.

Four road blocks surround the compound, trying to keep this side of the election story out of sight.