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Zimbabwe heads for tight election battle

29 July 2013, 09:42

Harare - Crisis-weary Zimbabweans head to the polls on Wednesday, in an already contentious election that could see President Robert Mugabe extend his 33-year grip on power.

More than six million Zimbabweans are eligible to cast their ballots in the first round of a presidential vote as well as parliamentary and council polls.

Election day will crown a campaign already marred by allegations that Mugabe has taken steps to rig what is likely his last election.

'Do or die' campaign

The 89-year-old - who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 - has expressed an iron determination to win this "do or die" campaign, despite persistent rumours of failing health.

"It's a fight for our lives. It's a battle for survival," he told 20 000 supporters as he kicked off his campaign earlier this month.

Mugabe's opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has accused the veteran leader of manipulating the voters' roll in "a desperate attempt to subvert the people's will".

This will be the 61-year-old's third attempt to unseat Mugabe, after a series of flawed and violent elections.

In 2008 Tsvangirai won the first round of voting, but pulled out of the race after some 200 of his supporters were killed.

This time round, either man will still need 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off.

The spectre of manipulation and the paucity of reliable opinion polls mean the outcome is far from certain.

Electoral roll

In a rare opinion poll from July last year, Afrobarometer reported a statistical dead heat between the two main parties.

But a quarter of respondents refused to reveal their preference because of what pollsters dubbed the "margin of terror".

There have been long-running concerns about the state of the electoral roll, which critics say is riddled with "ghost voters" who have a tendency to vote for Mugabe's and his allies.

According to the Research and Advocacy Unit, a non-governmental group, in June the electoral roll still contained the names of one million dead or departed voters.

A new round of registration has since taken place, but like so many other democratic reforms planned in the wake of the 2008 poll, implementation has been patchy.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai were conscripted into a unity government in the aftermath of the last election by outside powers keen to put an end to years of political and economic turmoil.

The arranged marriage resulted in a new constitution, but many promised reforms have failed to materialise.

The army, police and electoral bodies remain under Mugabe's control and closely allied to him.

In the run-up to the vote Tsvangirai's political allies, independent lawyers, NGOs and the media have suffered regular intimidation.

Early voting

Early voting for the police and military was chaotic, with thousands unable to cast their vote because ballot papers were not printed in time.

"Judging by the chaos that we witnessed during the special voting exercise, the country is headed for another sham election whose outcome will not reflect the will of the people," said Phillip Pasirayi, a Harare-based political analyst.

Western poll observers and some journalists, including AFP's non-Zimbabwean reporters, have been not been granted permission to cover the elections.

But African observers have so far been upbeat about the elections.

"We think they will be able to manage," said African Union commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

While Washington has warned it may ramp up sanctions if the vote is not fair, among the international community there appears to be little appetite to challenge that account or return to sanctions.

The European Union has said it will defer to Zimbabwe's southern African neighbours, particularly the 15-member SADC bloc, which will deploy 442 observers to cover 210 constituencies.


Mugabe has deftly spun western sanctions as a neo-colonial plot that caused the economic nightmare which subsumed the country over the last decade.

For all the talk about this being Mugabe's last election, analysts note this may also be Tsvangirai's last roll of the dice.

He has lead the Movement for Democratic Change since 1999.

"Tsvangirai will get a protest vote from those who want change and a sympathy vote from those who feel for him, for him for the attacks he has suffered," said Shakespeare Hamauswa, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

"But this could be his last chance. The people of Zimbabwe will lose their patience and call for a renewal of the MDC's leadership."

Tsvangirai is hoping his plan to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a long awaited victory.

But his own success may cost him. Although the economy remains feeble, the MDC finance minister's 2009 decision to adopt the US dollar put an end to hyperinflation.

The economic situation today is less crisis-riven than it was when Zimbabweans voted in 2008.

That has given Mugabe breathing space to focus his campaign on bashing homosexuals and doubling down on promises to redistribute wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.

It may yet again prove a successful gambit.




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