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Mugabe's maneuvering dims hopes for fair election
Sarah Childress, Wall Street Journal
March 22, 2008

Anxious to ensure his victory in next Saturday's polls, the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has banned Western observers, intimidated the opposition and bribed starving rural dwellers with food, international watchdog groups say.

All that has dimmed hope that despite international pressure and two strong opposition candidates, the elections in Zimbabwe will be any fairer this time around than in previous years.

Still, the election will be the first time in Mr. Mugabe's 28-year rule that he will face a serious challenger from within his own ranks. The president's former finance minister, Simba Makoni, is running against him, as is longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mr. Tsvangirai, a dedicated human-rights activist and trade unionist, has endured beatings and intimidation for opposing the government in previous elections. But his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has never succeeded in defeating Mr. Mugabe.

A chemist trained in the U.K., Mr. Makoni was fired from the government cabinet after criticizing the president's economic policy. When he announced his candidacy in February, some outside observers and Zimbabweans in the diaspora had held out hope that he might at least be able to loosen Mr. Mugabe's iron grip on power. Mr. Makoni appeared to be backed by high-ranking members of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Unity-Patriotic Front.

He also had the support of a breakaway faction of the MDC, led by Arthur Mutambara, a businessman and Rhodes Scholar. He threw his weight behind Mr. Makoni on the premise that a divided opposition would guarantee Mr. Mugabe a win.

The Zimbabwean government agreed -- after negotiations brokered by South African president Thabo Mbeki and the Southern African Development Community, a respected regional body -- to implement new guidelines aimed at ensuring a free and fair election.

But hope that this poll would be different has waned as the brief campaign season comes to a close. The government hasn't implemented the reforms and has banned observers from countries that it says are critical of Mr. Mugabe, which includes all European nations.

"We do not expect a free and fair election," said Andebrhan Giorgis, senior adviser for the International Crisis Group's Africa program. "We're hoping for the best, but that's hope against hope."

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, an independent group, Zanu-PF supporters have harassed and beat up opposition supporters. The report also said that government and party officials have bribed rural voters with food and farming equipment, and withheld it from those who weren't registered Zanu-PF members. The government has dismissed the report, saying that Human Rights Watch is biased against Zimbabwe.

Both opposition candidates have highlighted the economic devastation in Zimbabwe, a country rich in platinum and gold but wrecked by corruption and mismanagement. Inflation is the highest in the world, and people have little food or running water.

Yet Mr. Mugabe is still popular in rural areas, where access to unfiltered information is scarce and people still remember the president when he first came to power in 1980 as a young revolutionary who overthrew white supremacist rule.

In a bid to keep those votes, Mr. Mugabe signed a bill into law this month that will allow locals to take majority shares in foreign companies. Analysts fear the populist move could further devastate the shattered economy, similar to his 2000 decision to hand over white-run commercial farms to untrained black workers.

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