Mugabe's vote-rigging and bribery set to secure easy victory

Zimbabweans vote today in an election expected to produce a "mountainous victory" for the party of President Robert Mugabe, who is suspected of rigging the polls to obtain the results he needs to stay in power.

As he predicted victory at a final campaign rally, the President said: "We have never been losers, because we have always been a party of the people."

As a last-minute perk to ensure electoral success, he announced that the minimum wage for domestic servants would increase tenfold.

The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said the sudden announcement would punish middle-class urban voters who employ most of Zimbabwe's 250,000 domestic servants, while trade unions warned that it could raise unemployment.

Tendai Biti, secretary of finance for the MDC, said: "They want to drive a wedge between urban employers and employees who are presumed to be MDC." He said Mr Mugabe had not made similar provisions for the 500,000 farm workers who had lost their jobs when land was seized from white farmers as part of his land reform policy. Wages in Zimbabwe have risen erratically over the past few years, sometimes in line with inflation and sometimes not.

A gardener earns Z$83,000 (£4.41) a month, and under the new minimum wage he will earn Z$800,000, in a country where the price of a loaf of bread has risen from Z$300, to Z$3,000.

The move is one of the more legitimate moves Mr Mugabe has made in this election campaign. He has been accused of withholding food from opposition supporters, intimidating MDC party workers and censoring the press.

More than three million Zimbabweans living outside the country have been barred from voting, but thousands of fictional names have been added to electoral rolls.

The allocation of seats is already skewed against the opposition; under Zimbabwe's constitution, voters will elect 120 members of Zimbabwe's 150-seat parliament, and Mr Mugabe will select the remaining 30 himself. To win an outright majority the MDC needs at least 76 seats, while Zanu-PF need only win 46. Any party that wins a two-thirds majority can then alter the constitution.

Earlier this year, the government passed a law that allows the military and security services to act as election officials, manning polling station and supervising the vote count.

"Can you imagine how a voter is going to feel, walking into a polling station and seeing the army and police standing at the door," asked Shari Eppel, a human rights worker for Zimbabwe-based Solidarity Peace Trust. "It does nothing to convince people this election will be free and fair."

In the last general election, in 2000, the MDC won 57 seats, despite its supporters being routinely arrested, beaten up and tortured by Mr Mugabe's youth militias. The MDC still enjoys wide support, but Mr Mugabe's critics believe he has managed to rig the election more effectively this time. Most people believe the opposition will return up to 40 candidates. Andrew Moyse, the head of a media monitoring service in Harare, said the only real question was just how many seats Zanu-PF would decide they wanted. "Are they going to rig it to the point where they give themselves a two-thirds majority? Will they allow the MDC to keep most of the seats that they win?"

And in the unlikely event of a hung parliament or an MDC majority, Mr Mugabe has retained the right to override parliament and rule by decree.

Even the monitoring of the poll has been skewed, as the select group of international election observers sympathetic to the regime has been hand-picked by Mr Mugabe. Three of the main ones are controlled by South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, and a fourth comes from the Southern African Development Community. The African Union has also sent observers.

Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, has already said he expects the elections in Zimbabwe will be free and fair. The EU and US have been banned from sending monitors. Mr Mugabe has said Western powers are hostile to his government.

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