Tactics may backfire on Mugabe

Voter turnout was high this weekend in Zimbabwe. Despite threats, many cast ballots for the opposition

Since her house was burned down two months ago by invading Zimbabwean war veterans, Mary Rice has slept in the open on the ground.

She says she has been forced by supporters of President Robert Mugabe to attend nightly pungwe -Maoist indoctrination sessions - and sing revolutionary songs for hours on end. And claims she endured regular threats of dire consequences if Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party were to lose parliamentary elections this weekend.

But Saturday morning she walked about three miles to Atlanta Farm, another burned-out white-owned commercial farm that serves as a local headquarters for war veterans who have seized some 1,600 commercial farms across the country. Outside a polling station erected in a burned-out farm building, she joined hundreds of other farm laborers who piled out of farm vehicles from surrounding farms and in the early morning hours cast a vote for Zimbabwe's upstart Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

It was an early sign that Mugabe's campaign, based on intimidation, stoking racial animosity and bashing the British, may have backfired.

And that could spell the end of 20 years of uninterrupted, uncontested rule for the president.

Only 120 of 150 parliamentary seats are elected. Mugabe appoints the rest, which means the MDC needs 76 to control a majority. Results are expected on Tuesday.

Election monitors and the MDC party reported sporadic incidents of intimidation on Saturday, but they also reported that the first of two days of voting was remarkably calm, peaceful and free of overt intimidation.

"The difference of the process prior to and on election day are like night and day," election-monitor Pierre Schori told Reuters. "Of course there was violence prior to the elections, but the election days have been generally peaceful."

Over the past four months, at least 30 people have lost their lives in political attacks and government-sanctioned invasions of white-owned farms. Most of the victims have been MDC supporters.

Many observers express surprise that war veterans, who had led the intimidation campaign, encouraged people to vote and Zimbabweans responded by turning out in force.

"Every day there were pungwe indoctrination sessions until yesterday. They would ask us to sing [struggle] songs. We were in a tight position, but now that we have voted, we feel free," says Ms. Rice, a worker on the occupied Ruddolphia Farm.

"From the time our houses were burned, the president and his agents did not come to investigate or help us. From that time until now we are sleeping in the open on the ground. This pushes us to vote for the opposition parties," she says.

With a full slate of 120 parliamentary candidates, the newly formed MDC is the first party ever to significantly challenge Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980. Presidential elections are still two years away.

But despite election results, the Constitution allows Mugabe to handpick his Cabinet from parliamentarians. "ZANU-PF will form the government whatever the results," party chairman John Nkomo told the press. "There will be no opposition in government."

For Africa as a whole, Mugabe's violent campaign to seize the white-owned farms and threats to nationalize factories and mines has deeply damaged foreign investor confidence and helped send the neighboring South African economy tumbling.

Prior to the vote, Mr. Schori, head of the European Union observer team, said there had been widespread "intimidation, vote-buying, and violence" which need to be denounced.

He said his group's goal was "to see to it that ... people will have access to the polling stations, that they get to those centers from the villages ... [and] are not harassed or stopped on their way to vote," he added.

The MDC reported Friday that 14 of its election monitors had been abducted on Thursday night in the south of the country and a polling station was burned down.

"They are targeting polling agents because it then makes it easier to rig the elections in the absence of our polling agents," MDC legal secretary David Coltart says.

In dozens of interviews, voters said the violence and forced all-night indoctrination sessions backfired against the ruling party. The violence did succeed in preventing the MDC and other opposition parties from campaigning in most of the deep rural areas that once were Mugabe's stronghold.

In Hwedza, the MDC candidate was stoned when he tried to campaign for the first time this week and subsequently went into hiding. But many voters were unconcerned that they had never met him.

"People are not worried about the candidates, they are just voting for MDC," says first-time voter Evans Matunga.

"Everybody has had enough of the campaign, including the candidates," says Aeneas Chigwedere, the incumbent ZANU-PF candidate running for reelection in Hwedza, about 100 kilometers southeast of Harare. He acknowledged the violence has backfired.

"[Violence] is deemed to be a strategy but it is counterproductive. You will silence them, but it doesn't mean they are coming out behind you." Chigwedere accused the opposition MDC started the violence and two weeks later "our party stormed three of their organizers' houses and they took counteraction."

"I am actually pleasantly surprised. This is great to see. There is a lot of peace and quiet about this," says one white commercial farmer Hwedza, a district about 100 miles southeast of Harare that had been among the spots hardest hit by election violence during the past four months.

"I think they overdid the intimidation. Some of the beatings were really quite severe, and workers just got tired of all the singing and slogans," says the farmer, who is still afraid to give his name.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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