Fears of violence hover as Zimbabwe goes to the polls

2013-07-30 23:16

Harare - As millions of Zimbabweans headed to the polls in a crunch election on Wednesday which might see the end of Robert Mugabe’s 33-year rule, fears hovered of a lengthy post-poll dispute and possible extensive violence.

This despite the 89-year-old ruler saying he will "surrender" if he were to lose the fiercely-contested election that remains too close to call.

Polling stations open at 07:00 (05:00 GMT).

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Earlier in the week his main rival, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, hinted that Mugabe could be granted immunity if he relinquishes power.

"I want Mugabe to enjoy his retirement in peace and quiet," he told supporters.

At his rallies, supporters have directed a chant of "game over" at Mugabe.

Mugabe, at a special news conference on the eve of the elections,  said he would step down if he loses the election.

"If you go into a process and join a competition where there are only two outcomes, win or lose, you can't be both. You either win or lose. If you lose, you must surrender."

Post-poll dispute

However, given the problems that have dogged the process, many Zimbabweans expect a lengthy post-poll dispute that will start in the courts, but could spill over onto the streets.

They fear a repeat of the violence that broke out after Mugabe lost the first round of an election in 2008.

A spokesperson for the MDC said the party was prepared only to the accept the results if the poll was "free and fair" - a verdict on which the jury is still out.

Western election observers have been barred, leaving the task of independent oversight to 500 regional and 7 000 domestic monitors. The final results must be released within five days, but may come sooner.

In an interview published in the Washington Post, Tsvangirai urged African monitors not to give the vote a seal of approval merely because they did not witness bloodshed.

So far, the campaign has been marked by allegations of threats and intimidation, but there has been no violence.

Despite this, squads of heavily armed riot police have been deployed in parts of Harare and state radio reported that thousands of officers had also been sent to the central Midlands province, another potential flashpoint.

Mugabe acknowledged problems with the election organisation, including the late release of the voters' roll, but denied the list had been doctored to ensure a Zanu-PF victory.

"We have done no cheating, never, ever," he said.

Dead voters

In June, the Research and Advocacy Unit, a non-government group, said after examining an incomplete roll, that it included a million dead voters or emigres, as well as over 100 000 people who were more than 100 years old.
Mugabe described campaigning as peaceful except for "a few incidents here and there" and said any unrest surrounding contested results will be stopped.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said conditions for a free vote were not in place.

It said a return to a protracted political crisis, and possibly extensive violence, was also likely, especially if regional election observers of the Southern African Development Community and African Union failed to identify flaws in the hastily arranged voting process.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said on Tuesday that voters are weighing up their options in the most significant polls since the first elections that swept Mugabe to power in 1980, ending colonial era rule.

Despite complaints of harassment and arrests of rights and civic activists over several months, "we believe a high voter turnout and a determined electorate can still show by their numbers, tenacity and resolve that their vote will be heard and their will respected", the group said.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a private group involved in voter education and electoral training programmes, is set to deploy 7 000 observers to polling stations nationwide. Another 4 000, including 600 observers from elsewhere in Africa, are also fanning out into voting districts to cover more than 9 000 voting stations.

Outright win

Mugabe said he expected to see his party as an outright winner, thereby avoiding mediation to form another power-sharing coalition similar to the deal forged by regional leaders after the last disputed and violent polls in 2008.

Tsvangirai has also predicted winning the poll, which he says will usher in change.

He has criticised Zanu-PF for doing little except emphasising its liberation credentials going back four decades.

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