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Despite Discontent, Mugabe’s Party Has Upper Hand in Vote

Times Staff Writer

If Richard Chiminya were alive, he probably would have voted against the Zimbabwean ruling party in today’s parliamentary election.

He was a passionate opposition activist until an April night five years ago when a ruling party supporter doused him with gasoline in his car and another threw in a match. He was incinerated within minutes.

A vote in Chiminya’s name may yet be cast in today’s ballot, though not for the candidate he might have selected. Opposition groups and election observers charge that as many as 2 million voters listed on the rolls are dead, duplicated or nonexistent, raising fears of election fraud by the ruling party.

The election is as much a test of Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, as it is of African leaders’ promise to uphold human rights and ensure elections are free and fair in order to win international investment.

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This year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Zimbabwe as an “outpost of tyranny,” lumping it with repressive regimes in Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Belarus. South African President Thabo Mbeki, the continent’s most influential leader, has advocated “quiet diplomacy” to persuade Mugabe to enact reforms, a strategy that has reaped little reward and divided Mbeki’s African National Congress party. Mbeki has also said there is no reason to doubt that today’s election will be fair.

“The collateral damage Zimbabwe has inflicted on the region, if not Africa as a whole, is immeasurable,” wrote Dumisani Muleya, Zimbabwe correspondent for Business Day newspaper in South Africa. “Those efforts depend on African leaders’ ability to tackle issues of democracy and governance in return for funding, but Mbeki and his colleagues have not fulfilled their side of the bargain. Zimbabwe is the test case.”

After 25 years under Mugabe, who led the liberation struggle against white minority rule, analysts say, voter support has waned for his ZANU-PF party, even in its rural strongholds. But opposition and civic groups say that there is no chance of a fair election, alleging that voter rolls have been rigged and electoral boundaries redrawn to move opposition seats into ruling party hands.

Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, the nation’s second-largest city, said opposition supporters in some areas were being denied maize and other staples by government officials. But unlike previous election campaigns in which government forces attacked opposition rallies and arrested activists, the current campaign has been relatively peaceful.

Ncube has urged a peaceful uprising to protest any electoral fraud, demonstrations that could stir young unemployed men who have been thronging to opposition rallies.

Zimbabwe’s economy is a shambles, with inflation at 127% and foreign currency reserves halved since 1997, when the Mugabe government announced it would redistribute land. The transfer of farms from white farmers to blacks -- many of them Mugabe cronies -- led to the collapse of the tobacco industry, once the country’s largest earner of foreign currency. The land seizures have idled many grain farms, causing food shortages.

Analysts say past election violence against opposition supporters such as Chiminya and heavy security on the streets after polling day will be enough to stifle the kind of mass street protests that recently have forced out governments in Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and Ukraine.

FreeZim Support Group, a Harare-based organization, has spent weeks trying to establish that the names of Chiminya and other deceased people were still on voting rolls. The group determined that some people on the rolls were buried 20 years ago.

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After authorities repeatedly refused access to voter rolls, FreeZim won a court action in October, enabling them to cart away three truckloads of pages containing voters’ names. An analysis of 7,000 names of dead people in 14 constituencies found 78% were still on the rolls.

International observers concluded that parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002 were not free or fair.

Mugabe’s regime has blocked observer teams that were critical, allowing in only those perceived as friendly.

In an election rally Wednesday in Glen Norah, a suburb outside Harare, Mugabe scoffed at accusations by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, that the ballot would be rigged.

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“They know they will lose,” he said. “They have prepared themselves to say the elections were not free and fair because of this and because of that.”

He warned the opposition to accept the results and not take to the streets. “It must be a victory, Victory Day, because we have never been losers,” he said.

Mugabe thrust his fist into the air as liberation songs about bloodshed and courage blared at the rally, which was attended by several thousand flag-waving, dancing ZANU-PF supporters in bright shirts emblazoned with an image of his face. Hundreds of supporters were bused in.

At a rally earlier in the week, Mugabe said a vote for ZANU-PF fulfilled the aim of the liberation struggle. “If, as a black person, you vote for the MDC, know that you are a sellout. You are a traitor to the revolutionary cause,” he told a crowd in Chivhu.

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The rhetoric resonated with many voters, including a 73-year-old villager from Tunha, 40 miles east of Harare. He gave his name only as Chamachinoa and spoke about the independence struggle in what was then called Rhodesia.

Chamachinoa said he nearly lost his life in the late 1970s when government soldiers attacked and burned his home because he sheltered about 20 anti-government guerrilla fighters.

He remembers the days under the white minority regime of Ian Smith when the whites owned all the fertile land and a black person could not brush against a white person.

After independence in 1980, Mugabe was his hero and he has always voted ZANU-PF, “because the old man [Mugabe] didn’t want to be opposed ... [and] we didn’t take the opposition seriously.”

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Nevertheless, Chamachinoa said he planned to vote for the MDC. “The government is failing to do its job,” he said. “There is too much corruption and stealing.”

Chamachinoa said he yearned for the days when whites owned the huge farms in the district. He wonders why it seems that the rains were better then.

“During this colonial era, we were colonized but we could afford to buy bread. The money we got bought everything we needed.” Now, he says, prices are unaffordable and there are no jobs. Many white farmers fled after the farm seizures, and “life became completely unbearable.”

Political analyst Iden Wetherell of the newspaper The Independent said the MDC had a last-minute resurgence in rural areas.

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“But will the MDC supporters survive the very considerable barrage of blandishments and intimidation thrust upon them? Will the MDC voters be impervious to the counting of heads by the head men [village leaders] when the people are standing in line to vote? That form of intimidation is still very much present,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Zimbabwe facts

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Independence: April 18, 1980

* Land: 150,800 square miles, slightly larger than Montana

* Government: President Robert Mugabe; unicameral House of Assembly (150 seats)

* Population: 12.8 million

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* GDP per capita: $1,900 (U.S. GDP per capita is $37,800)

* Life expectancy at birth: 37.8 years

* Literacy: 90.7%

* Religion: 50% of populace is syncretic (part Christian, part indigenous beliefs)

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Sources: CIA World Factbook,

U.S. Census Bureau

Los Angeles Times


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