Africa vote's prelude violent

Zimbabwe election nears after campaign marked by violence

Mugabe foes live in fear

June 23, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARARE, Zimbabwe - After a campaign defined by death, violence and economic turmoil, Zimbabwean voters will go to the polls this weekend in an election that may lead to the first change in government in two decades - or, some fear, may push their country further into chaos.

Zimbabweans will be choosing new parliamentary leaders. But the election is viewed not so much as a contest between individual candidates as a battle between President Robert Mugabe's ailing, yet firmly entrenched, one-party government and a powerful new opposition group giving the government its first serious challenge.

In a year in which Zimbabwe should be celebrating 20 years of independence, the nation of 12 million people is hurtling toward bankruptcy and anarchy. More than 50 percent of the people are unemployed. Inflation is running at 60 percent. with prices of such basics as vegetables up by 200 percent in the past several months. A third of the nation's army is fighting an unpopular war in the Congo. Rampant AIDS has cut life expectancy to 38 years from 60.

Landless blacks have illegally occupied more than 1,600 white-owned farms, with Mugabe's blessing. At least 32 people have died in political violence. And many fear violence may intensify after the election and threaten the stability of all of southern Africa.

"The ruling party is waging war on its people, its economy, our future," said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a former labor leader. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is looking to win a majority of the parliamentary seats, giving it the key to dismantle a corrupt government they say has kept a stranglehold on power through shrewd political maneuvering and brutal intimidation.

This election season Mugabe's tactics have not changed, only intensified, according to human rights groups, who have said that free elections cannot be held under such conditions. Mugabe has severely restricted the number of foreign observers he will allow into the country to monitor the election.

Along with the political killings there have been scores injured in beatings, rapes, kidnappings and other organized political violence instigated by supporters of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. Mugabe and his supporters deny the charges, saying the opposition party has been the source of the trouble.

Yet, it is the MDC candidates whose safety fears prevent them from campaigning openly. Some tiptoe under the cloak of night from house to house to spread their message. Others, not comfortable walking the streets, toss campaign fliers from car windows, hoping voters will find them in the morning.

Tino Mudezori, 46, an MDC candidate from Gokwe East district in the western Midlands region, said that for the past two weeks, ZANU-PF supporters marched through his village threatening to hurt him. Early Monday morning, they delivered.

About 100 "war veterans" of Zimbabwe's struggle for black rule descended on his home, forced their way inside and pulled out his furniture, clothing and his other possessions, then set them on fire.

Mudezori, who owns a small transportation company in his village, escaped just as the mob arrived, but his wife and five children were caught and beaten for three hours.

"I hid in the bush and watched them get beaten," he recalled. "My son went berserk and ran away."

His family has not been able to find his son since.

"Definitely, the elections are not free and fair," Mudezori said this week at MDC headquarters, where he was plotting a night campaign journey to his district. "I will not drop down. That seat belongs to me."

"We haven't seen this kind of violence and tension since 1980 at the end of the liberation struggle. Many places seem like a war zone," said Tony Reeler, director of Amani Trust, a human rights group based in Harare that has been monitoring the violence.

Reeler said many citizens have been victims of "mass psychological torture" when they are rounded up and sent to re-education camps and forced to pledge allegiance to Mugabe's party. Many people believe that their vote will not be secret and that they will be beaten or killed if they vote for the opposition, Reeler said.

Denied Mugabe is stunned

Zimbabwe's political unraveling started in February when voters rejected a referendum that would have expanded Mugabe's power, including giving the government the right to seize white-owned farms without compensation.

Stunned by the defeat, Mugabe seized the issue of land reform to recapture support for his party. His government encouraged the occupation of white-owned farms by so-called war veterans. (Many of the "veterans" were not born or were children in 1979, at the end of the civil war that pitted black nationalists against a white-ruled Rhodesian government.)

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