The long-delayed second round of voting in Zimbabwe's presidential election will be held on 27 June, it was announced yesterday, despite worrying reports that violence against the political opponents of the government is intensifying.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic, confirmed he will return to the country today and hold the first MDC rally since 29 March election in Harare, after a judge overturned police attempts to ban the gathering.
The stage is set for a tense and bloody build-up to the vote as the Mugabe regime seeks to overturn a first round defeat in which it lost control of parliament and finished a clear second to Mr Tsvangirai in the race for the top office. The MDC leader is only participating reluctantly in the new vote as he claims he won enough votes to avoid the run-off. Official results showed him falling narrowly short.
In the six weeks since the vote, Zimbabwe has been convulsed by a state-sponsored campaign of violence and intimidation. Opposition and civil liberty groups say more than 30 people have been murdered by government-backed militias and many hundreds have been badly beaten. Teachers, church-goers, agricultural workers and white farmers have all been targeted in an attempt to terrorise anyone believed to oppose President Robert Mugabe's rule.
There are serious concerns over the legitimacy of a poll conducted against a backdrop of torture and murder and there is no indication that independent observers will be granted access to the election. Noel Kututwa, chairman of independent election observer group the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said: "To hold an election under these circumstances ... I think the legitimacy of that election will be called into question."
The MDC has called for an urgent meeting of the Southern African Development Community group of countries and warned of "rivers of dead people" if outside pressure is not brought to bear on Mr Mugabe and his allies.
Mr Mugabe, 84, told his ruling Zanu-PF party yesterday that the first round had been "disastrous", but again sought to portray the opposition as puppets of "a hostile axis of powerful foreign governments" and Western imperialists.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast, Mr Tsvangirai dismissed his rival's rhetoric: "There is now a general understanding that the crisis in Zimbabwe is not a problem about land, it is the problem of a dictator who refuses to give up power."
Violence is reaching "crisis point", according to Amnesty International, which claims that gangs posing as veterans of the war of independence are forcibly recruiting local youths to attack anyone believed to support the MDC. Eyewitnesses said "war veterans" were assaulting supposed opposition sympathisers as they geared up for an attempt to overturn the first round deficit.
"Those who refuse to commit violence are assaulted and accused of being MDC supporters," said Simeon Mawanza, an Amnesty researcher.
Police appear unwilling to intervene, only acting to arrest MDC supporters.Reuse content