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  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles

  • Mugabe keeps grip before vote, but the opposition grows bolder
    Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times
    July 30, 2013

    View this article on the The New York Times website

    When the main challengers in Zimbabwe’s presidential election tried to import motorcycles to register voters across vast distances, the government impounded them, forcing the party to use bicycles instead. Then the challengers’ election chief was jailed less than a week before the vote, and denied bail the day before it.

    President Robert Mugabe, the man who has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of white domination in 1980, retains his iron grip on the country’s feared security apparatus, which killed more than 200 people in the 2008 presidential election season. Now nearing 90, he is running again on Wednesday, and there are few signs that he is ready to give up the reins after more than three decades in power.

    “The 89 years don’t mean anything,” a confident Mr. Mugabe said in a rare interview. “They haven’t changed me, have they? They haven’t withered me. They haven’t made me senile yet, no. I still have ideas, ideas that need to be accepted by my people.”

    But even with the shadow of the last election still looming, Edison Masunda was unafraid as he joined others streaming into a dusty field at the edge of the city center, part of a crimson wave of tens of thousands who gathered for the challenging party’s final rally on Monday.

    It was a far cry from the thick blanket of fear that smothered the country in 2008, when many opposition supporters dared not wear their party’s red insignia or openly show their political loyalties, lest roaming bands of Mugabe supporters beat them up, or worse.

    “I want to see a new Zimbabwe,” said Mr. Masunda, a 25-year-old unemployed mechanic, as he prepared to cast a vote against the only president he had ever known, Mr. Mugabe. “We have no fear. Mugabe must go. The people will speak.”

    Mr. Masunda and the others massed in the field, renamed Freedom Square, within sight of the headquarters of Mr. Mugabe’s party, emblazoned with its towering black cockerel insignia.

    “Bye bye, Mugabe, bye bye!” they chanted in unison, palms aloft in a vast, synchronized wave.

    Many Zimbabweans are calling this the most important election since Mr. Mugabe, a hero of liberation, first came to power. Wednesday’s vote is being held on a tight timetable and a shoestring budget as a result of Mr. Mugabe’s insistence that it be held by the end of August.

    The voter registration process was truncated, and just two days before the election there was still no final list of voters, as required by law. Early voting by police officers and emergency workers was chaotic, and many were unable to cast their ballots.

    The government has barred Western observers like those from the European Union, but the African Union and the regional trade bloc, the Southern African Development Community, as well as local organizations, have been accredited in large numbers and will be watching at the polls.

    And while most foreign journalists were barred during the last election, social media will be a prominent part of the campaign. Both Mr. Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF, and its main challenger, the Movement for Democratic Change, are using Twitter and Facebook to get out news. Several web sites have sprung up to monitor election irregularities, and the challengers are counting on voters to use their cellphones to announce results as they come in and to report abuses.

    Dressed in a bright red suit at the final challenger rally, Nelson Chamisa, a candidate for Parliament, exhorted tens of thousands of party supporters to use their phones as a weapon for democracy. “If you have a cellphone, I want to see it,” Mr. Chamisa shouted.

    Almost every hand went up, and a chant of “Show your phone!” washed over the crowd.

    Mr. Chamisa later said that the well-attended rally was a sign that voters were fed up with Mr. Mugabe and not afraid to defy him. “This is the final nail in the coffin of dictatorship,” Mr. Chamisa said. “We are going to lower the coffin and bury it on Wednesday.”

    The absence of violence in the days leading up to the election has emboldened many to openly support the main presidential challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai. Divisions within Mr. Mugabe’s party have also weakened his hand, with a succession struggle pitting the vice president against the defense minister in the race to succeed him.

    “Mugabe’s own house is not in order,” said Pedzisai Ruhanya, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, an advocacy group. “People feel they can come out and have their say in this election like never before.”

    But that may not translate into an easy victory for the challengers, even if they win the most votes. One veteran analyst who did not wish to be identified because he fears arrest said that the election observers are mainly looking for violence, not fraud.

    “Last time it was all about intimidation and violence,” the analyst said. “This time the rigging hinges on technical issues like the voters roll and the vote tabulation.”

    Mr. Mugabe has outlived virtually all his African contemporaries, but he showed few signs of his age at a rally for his party on Sunday, standing at a lectern for two hours, delivering a thundering harangue in a mix of clipped English and mellifluous Shona. His topics ranged from good governance to the American use of drones in Pakistan, and his party hopes to win on its claim that it has restored Zimbabwe’s land and natural resources to black Zimbabweans.

    “Just because you bring your hoes to our land, it doesn’t mean you are entitled to it,” Mr. Mugabe declared to a tepid ripple of applause. “The money comes and goes. My resource is there in Mother Earth. It cannot be compared to pieces of silver.”

    The stadium, built to hold 60,000, was about half full. So many people tried to leave during Mr. Mugabe’s speech that the police formed a human chain to hold in the crowd and locked the exits to the stadium.

    “I only came for the t-shirt,” confided one young man who pleaded with a policeman to let him out. “I’m not voting for the old man,” he continued, in a whisper.

    In a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Mugabe bantered and joked with journalists as he sat flanked by stuffed lions and cheetahs on the veranda leading to his office.

    Asked if he would run for yet another term if he won this time (he would be 94 then), he quipped, “Why do you want to know my secrets?”

    Up close, Mr. Mugabe appeared more frail, struggling to keep his eyes open, his eyelids slowly fluttering. In the interview, Mr. Mugabe brushed off questions about the delays in getting the voters roll.

    “Well, that there was delay, yes,” he said. “Unfortunately we were not informed about this in good time.”

    Mr. Mugabe spoke in valedictory terms about his achievements, saying that history would remember him as a liberator, whatever the outcome of the election.

    “If they want to damn me, they will damn me,” he said. “There is no one who is a perfect person. I am not a perfect person. I have my own mistakes here and there.”

    Mr. Mugabe incited the seizure of farms owned by white Zimbabweans, which began in 2000 and led to the wholesale collapse of Zimbabwe’s once prosperous economy. Joblessness, hyperinflation and hunger soon followed, though in recent years the agricultural sector has recovered and farmers who were given land have begun to see real increases in their income.

    According to the official tally, Mr. Mugabe won fewer votes than Mr. Tsvangirai in the first round of voting in the 2008 presidential election, but Mr. Tsvangirai pulled out of the runoff because of violent state-sponsored attacks on his supporters. After regional powers brokered an agreement to end the crisis, Mr. Tsvangirai joined a power-sharing government and became prime minister.

    The two parties were supposed to work together to overhaul Zimbabwe’s institutions before new elections, and they managed to pass a new Constitution that many criticized as a flawed compromise. The power-sharing government switched the currency to the United States dollar, arresting hyperinflation, but deep reforms of the police and the army, which have been implicated in political violence, never took place.

    Both parties predict big victories. Polls in Zimbabwe are often unreliable, producing large numbers of undecided voters. The challengers argue that this drastically understates support for them because of what they call the “margin of terror,” people who are too afraid to reveal their party choice.

    Regardless of who wins, Mr. Mugabe said that he would respect the outcome.

    “If you go into a process and join in a competition, where there are only two outcomes, win or lose, it can’t be both,” Mr. Mugabe said. Asked if he would step down if he lost, he said, “We will do so, yes.”

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