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Zimbabwe battens down for uneasy election

Predictions of unrest and doubts about a widely acceptable result precede weekend poll.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2002


The Fabulous Beauty Salon on the corner of Mugabe street in downtown Harare is cram-packed. Patricia is getting her nails done. Nancy is fiddling with her hair extensions. On Monday this shop will be closed. No one seems to be sure about Tuesday. Or Wednesday.

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The manager fits a new metal gate to his storefront window and closes his account books. "I don't know, I don't know," he responds to a future appointment inquiry.

As Zimbabweans go to the polls this weekend - amid fears that the violence which has marked the election campaign will reach even greater levels - the country is grinding to a standstill.

No matter who wins - whether Zanu-PF incumbent President Robert Mugabe, or his challenger, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate Morgan Tsvangirai - most predict there will be unrest.

Foreigners are evacuating. Locals who can afford it are either locking up and flying out, or stocking up on food. And the majority of the popu- lation - dirt poor, hungry, increasingly frustrated, and without options - is just waiting.

"It is not a question of whether or not there will be violence," one senior Western diplomat wrote in a cable to his capital last week. "It's a question of how much and for how long ... and how Zimbabwe is going to come out of it."

Due to the political climate, people are afraid to say whom they will be voting for. Nonetheless, several independent polls clearly indicate that Mr. Tsvangirai has more popular support than Mr. Mugabe, possibly much more.

The country is experiencing an economic free fall. Unemployment is estimated at 60 percent, inflation is more than 100 percent. Half a million people are faced with starvation because of drought and the forced occupation of white commercial farms by squatters.

Foreign investment has all but dried up, and tourists are staying away. Zimbabwe has become a pariah state internationally. It is likely that if Mugabe continues as president, the European Union (EU) will impose full sanctions here, and relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and other donors will collapse. The opposition party slogan is as simple as it is appealing. "Change! Change! Change!"

Some envision a scenario whereby Mugabe - an aging soldier who has run Zimbabwe since white rule ended in 1980 and who blames the current economic mess on former colonial power Britain - takes note of his loss and steps down.

"Mugabe might say he does not intend to step down," says Masiphula Sithole, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe. "But when faced with the facts - especially if he loses by such a large margin that it is impossible to tamper with it - he will leave."

Most pundits however, scoff at this idea and say that Mugabe - power hungry and fearful of possible retribution for his bloody crackdown in Matabeland in the 1980s - will refuse to release the reins of power.

"There is no option of Mugabe winning fairly. And no option of his accepting a loss. It's all about stealing the elections," says Wilfred Mhanda, a war veteran who heads the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform, an alternative association of former fighters who oppose Mugabe. "And this has already been done - such theft does not just happen on election day."

Mugabe's detractors point at a very long list of irregularities - from mere voter confusion tactics to outright brutal intimidation - as evidence that the election heist began long ago.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair claims that a free and fair election is now virtually impossible. Sixty-nine of Tsvangirai's rallies have been banned or disrupted by thugs. More than 400,000 serious human-rights abuses have been reported, and 107 MDC supporters and activists have been reported to have died in political violence over the past two years.