Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zimbabwe elections underway

Long queues have already formed outside polling stations in Zimbabwe which opened at 7am this morning. For the next 12 hours, the country goes to the polls for presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and local government elections. The presidential election is the key vote and the state of the country’s economy under longtime president Robert Mugabe is likely to the decisive issue. Food shortages have helped drive prices higher and inflation topped 100,000 percent in January. Zimbabwe’s collapse in foreign currency earnings is partially the result of Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms to give to landless blacks.

This election represents the biggest challenge yet to the 84 year old Mugabe who has led his country since independence in 1980. Mugabe has no intention of stepping aside and many are predicting a violent outcome. Gabriel Shumba, a former political prisoner and executive director of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, says the security forces are threatening a coup if Mugabe loses the election. But Shumba also believes many people have reached breaking point. "The people are ready to say enough is enough," he said. "We have had three elections that have been blatantly stolen, so tension is very, very high."

Mugabe’s opponents this weekend are former labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai, 56, and his ex-finance minister Simba Makoni, 58. A second round will be held within three weeks if none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent. Tsvangirai is an old adversary of Mugabe having run against him in the 2002 election. He won 42 percent of the presidential vote to Mugabe's 56 percent amid violence and claims of vote-rigging as large numbers of citizens in urban areas were prevented from voting. This year’s three-way contest looks more more unpredictable to call.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has accused the electoral commission of printing 3 million more ballots than there are registered voters and of keeping the voters' roll in disarray. Tsvangirai relies on urban support and his MDC won 24 of the 25 seats in Harare and Bulawayo, the country's two biggest cities, in 2005’s parliamentary elections. He will benefit most from the expected split in the ZANU-PF vote between Mugabe and Makoni.

Simba Makoni is also in confident mood going into the election. A cabinet minister between 2000 and 2002; he quit the ruling ZANU-PF party to mount his challenge against Mugabe and predicted he would win over 70 per cent of the vote. He now says his chances "are very good" and said his final tally should be "more than" his initial prediction. "I feel good, I voted for the best candidate, I voted for Simba Makoni," he told reporters after he voted this morning in the capital Harare. Mugabe has been rattled by his candidacy from within the party. "He is like a frog trying to inflate itself up to the size of an ox," said Mugabe about Makoni. "It will burst."

Meanwhile Robert Mugabe's own support remains strong in the Shona-dominated rural north of the country. There, his policy of seizing white-owned farms and redistributing them to black subsistence farmers has proved popular despite it pushing the country into recession. But Mugabe’s biggest advantage is incumbency and use of the state machine. He has dominated the press and airwaves and the stench of corruption refuses to go away. The opposition has revealed more than nine million paper ballots were printed for Zimbabwe's 5.9 million voters, while another 600,000 special ballots were produced for only 20,000 diplomats and soldiers stationed abroad.

Many are convinced that this year’s result has already been rigged. Earlier this month, the government banned election observers from western countries and most foreign media from monitoring the polls. No reliable opinion polls were conducted during the campaign, although state media has predicted Mugabe would triumph with 57 percent of the vote and avoid the need for the run-off election three weeks later. This would clearly be the worst outcome for Zimbabwe. The country has the world’s highest rate of inflation at a staggering 100,580 percent and four people in every five are unemployed.

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