Zimbabweans queue to vote in 'rigged' poll

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The Independent Online

Zimbabweans queued for hours at polling stations around the country yesterday, in elections proclaimed by President Robert Mugabe to be free and fair but dismissed by critics as another rigged result.

Zimbabweans queued for hours at polling stations around the country yesterday, in elections proclaimed by President Robert Mugabe to be free and fair but dismissed by critics as another rigged result.

Mr Mugabe was bullish as he cast his vote in the capital, Harare, saying he was: "Entirely, completely, totally optimistic of victory."

The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, by contrast, appeared resigned to defeat. "We are not happy with the way the electoral playing field has been organised, and I think we all agree on all benchmarks this is not going to be a free and fair election," he said.

The European Union has already dismissed the election as fraudulent, but Mr Mugabe has the support of South African election observers, who are expected to rule that the vote is free and fair.

The embattled President has sought to evoke the anti-imperialist mood of the independence struggle, with regular attacks on the British Prime Minister, using the slogan: "Bury [Tony] Blair.

He has accused Mr Blair of backing the oppostion Movement for Democratic Change to undermine Zimbabwe's sov-ereignty and give land back to white farmers. The MDC in its turn has tried to focus on Zimbabwe's catastrophic economic decline and fast-vanishing democracy.

The atmosphere around the country yesterday was peaceful, in contrast to the last general election in 2000, when the government's youth militias roamed the country beating up opposition supporters. Despite the violence and intimidation, the MDC still managed to win 57 seats. This time around, the violence is less overt but no one believes the election will be more democratic.

There are 5.9 million people on Zimbabwe's voters roll, but the opposition say at least one million names are fictional - added there to bolster Zanu-PF's share of the vote. In the countryside, where a prolonged drought has left thousands on the verge of starvation, Zanu-PF supporters have warned voters that they will be denied food if their village votes for the opposition.

Yesterday, some voters complained that election officials, all chosen by the government, had followed them into the voting booth. MDC officials had urged voters to remain at the polling stations after voting to watch the observers, but the government said anyone lingering would be arrested. The results, expected today, are likely to show that Zanu-PF increased its majority in parliament. Mr Mugabe is keen to win a two-thirds majority, which will allow him to amend the constitution and create an un-elected senate, appointed by the President. Critics say the new chamber, which will have the power to scrutinise proposed legislation, will allow Mr Mugabe to bypass parliament.

Archbishop Pius Ncube, whose see is in the MDC heartland of Bulawayo, caused an outcry when he said the election was fixed and the only way Zimbabweans could oust Mr Mugabe was through a "non-violent popular uprising". Yesterday, he said that Zanu-PF would only win 40 per cent of the vote if the election were truly fair.

In the Tsholotsho constit-uency in the south, Mr Mugabe's former spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo is standing as an independent against both the MDC and Zanu-PF. If he wins, he is expected to form a rival party that could replace the MDC as the main opposition.

* Two British journalists have been arrested while covering the election. Toby Harnden, The Sunday Telegraph's chief foreign correspondent, and Julian Simmonds, its photographer, were at a polling station in a primary school near Norton, south of Harare, early in the afternoon, when they were taken into custody.

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