Years of suffering build opposition in Zimbabwe

Mugabe foes point to election turnout as sign of strength

June 26, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUTOKO, Zimbabwe - In 1975, at age 17, Maxwell Hodzi left his family in this rural mountain village eager to fight alongside Robert Mugabe in a liberation war against white rule.

Now, some 20 years after victory, as his country teeters on the brink of economic ruin, Hodzi appears ready to go to battle again for his president and former commander. Wearing a black beret, Hodzi led a group of teen-agers in Mugabe T-shirts down the potholed streets of his hometown over the weekend hoping to develop a new generation of ruling party members.

"I admit there are a lot of issues that the government is trying to work on. But we don't solve the problem by changing the government," Hodzi said. "We don't think the opposition party could do any better."

As Zimbabweans crammed polling stations over the weekend to vote in parliamentary elections, Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front was counting on the loyalty and forgiveness of rural voters like Hodzi to survive its first serious opposition since independence from colonial rule.

But yesterday at the end of two days of voting, the new opposition party, called the Movement for Democratic Change, was expressing growing confidence that it would wrest control from a faltering, corrupt government that they say has brought the country to its knees.

In its corner, there are young, urban voters frustrated with high inflation, more than 50 percent unemployment, lack of medical care, spiraling AIDS cases and a government that has been deaf to their problems.

"We want change," said Adonia Chibodamoyo yesterday, as he walked from his polling station in Hatcliffe, a community about 20 kilometers north of Harare. "We are sick and tired of the ruling party. Everybody is suffering. The ruling party is not going to change anything. They were in power for 20 years. We want to give another party a chance. If they fail, we will change them also."

Election results are expected to be released today, after a campaign season marred by violence including at least 30 people killed and scores injured - most of them opposition supporters.

The two days of voting passed in comparative peace with high turnouts reported in almost every district. Many people stood in long twisting lines for two or three hours waiting to cast their votes.

Generally speaking, the voting was calm and well organized, said Pierre Schori, head of the EU Election Observation Mission in a statement on the mission's findings last night. But the European Union election observers condemned the violence and intimidation that characterized the months leading up to the election, concluding that there were serious flaws in the electoral process.

Schori stopped short of evaluating the freedom or fairness of the election as a whole, saying his team would make that judgment once the final phase of ballot counting was finished.

The opposition party complained that party members continued to be harassed in some areas, but it viewed the large number of voters as a sign of overwhelming support.

"The violence and the reign of terror has backfired on ZANU-PF," said Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party.

Tsvangirai called Mugabe a "national liability" and suggested that the 76-year-old president should step down if the opposition party won a majority of the seats. Mugabe is not up for election, but the opposition threatens to take away his party's almost total control of parliament, where it holds all but three of the 150 seats.

Mugabe, who has tried to create a one-party socialist state since coming to power in 1980, handpicks 30 of the 150 members. So if the MDC wants to control parliament, it must win 76 of the 120 seats being contested.

ZANU-PF officials continued to predict an overwhelming victory. They said that the party was experiencing new energy after its defeat in a referendum in February that would have increased Mugabe's power.

Mugabe responded to the defeat by making land reform a key issue in the election. With his blessing, veterans of the liberation war occupied some 1,600 white-owned farms demanding that the land be turned over to them.

Hodzi, a war veteran and ZANU-PF youth leader, said his party failed to match the aggressive campaigning done by the opposition party during the referendum. But in the months leading up to the election, the balance has shifted in the ruling party's favor, he said.

"People have to be educated to understand our successes," Hodzi said.

The opposition and many human rights groups said that education has taken the form of beatings, rapes, stonings and abductions by ruling party supporters and war veterans.

Hodzi denied the charges of violence, saying that any altercations in his community had been prompted by opposition party members.

"We are not harassing anybody," he said.

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