Mugabe goes it alone as last rival quits presidential poll

JAMES ROBERTS

The only remaining challenger to Robert Mugabe has pulled out of this weekend's presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

The outcome of the election was never in doubt. Earlier this week, Ndabaningi Sithole - one-time ally of Mr Mugabe who fell out with him permanently when he joined with Ian Smith in the Internal Settlement to the Rhodesia conflict in 1978 - withdrew from the race saying the secret police had fabricated a case that he planned to kill Mr Mugabe.

Yesterday, Mr Sithole's partner from the days of the Internal Settlement, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, pulled out after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal about the way the elections have been conducted. Bishop Muzorewa's United Parties opposition coalition had asked for a postponement while the courts considered their arguments that electoral laws favour Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF.

Zimbabwean taxpayers are obliged to cough up millions of dollars to Zanu- PF campaign funds, whether they like it or not, while opposition parties get nothing. Mr Mugabe also has jurisdiction over the appointment of election supervisors and the administration of polling.

In last few years, independent voices have occasionally been heard in the media, but Mr Mugabe's state machinery has a record of efficiency at least in the respect of silencing such voices.

However, it now appears that in his obsessive crusade to prove to the world that his is the only voice worth listening to, Mr Mugabe may have fallen over his own feet.

The 71-year-old president has been campaigning furiously since he was tipped off that as many as 85 per cent of the eligible 5 million voters might simply find they have better things to do than turn up to cast a meaningless ballot. Margaret Dongo, one of only three opposition MPs in the 150-member parliament, had urged people to stay at home.

Mr Mugabe threw himself, his party and the media into top gear, and according to some reports looked like achieving a barely respectable 40 per cent turnout.

Now Bishop Muzorewa may have succeeded in throwing election weekend into chaos, thereby achieving the only kind of victory that was available to a party playing uphill on a steeply sloping playing field.

Officials had said on Thursday that the election would be cancelled if the bishop did not run, but in a quick turnabout yesterday the registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, said that the elections would go ahead as Bishop Muzorewa and Mr Sithole had failed to submit their withdrawals in time.

Yesterday, Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay called the opposition coalition's argument "entirely without merit". A Supreme Court hearing on the constitutional issues raised by the United Parties is scheduled for 24 June, but it is difficult to see what purpose would be served by such a hearing, with Mr Mugabe firmly entrenched by then for another six years.

Bishop Muzorewa resumed his political career in 1994, eight years after retiring from the presidency of his opposition United African National Council. "I am back because the people want me to help them get rid of the current dictatorship," he said at the time. He describes himself as an optimist and God-sent politician. And perhaps his prayers have been answered.

At a recent rally, Mr Mugabe told his audience: "I know we will win but European countries want to see how many people will vote . . . If, for instance, they see that half the number of people registered to vote, say, in Bulawayo did vote, they will say Mugabe's party is not popular."

The president has always been sensitive about his international image, and the turn of events has done nothing to enhance it.

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