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Zimbabwe's polls: largely empty and only one candidate

The second round of presidential voting was marked by violence and intimidation. Voters could vote only for President Mugabe.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Contributors / June 28, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa; and HARARE, Zimbabwe

Polls were open but nearly empty across much of the country Friday, as Zimbabwe's second round of presidential elections gave Zimbabweans the chance to cast their vote for only one candidate, incumbent President Robert Mugabe.

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Mr. Mugabe's opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai – who won the first round of the elections March 29, but without the 50-percent vote required to avoid a runoff – pulled out of the race last Sunday, arguing that the government's use of violence against opposition supporters had made a farce of the electoral process.

Criticism against the Mugabe regime's violent methods mounted across the continent. Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya joined Botswana, Angola, and Zambia in their condemnation of the Mugabe regime, although Mugabe called these criticisms hypocritical.

"I want to see a country that will point a finger at us and say we have done something wrong," Mugabe told the state-run media this week, after a mini-conference of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) met in Swaziland and called on Zimbabwe to postpone Friday's vote. "I want to see that finger ... and see whether it is clean or dirty. I want to see it."

With the United States, Britain, and much of Europe announcing this week that they do not regard the presidency of Mugabe to be legitimate – a precursor to further sanctions against the leader and his immediate circle of followers – it seems clear that the landlocked country of Zimbabwe will become even further isolated. This will only compound the nation's economic difficulties, including hyperinflation of more than 1 million percent, 80-percent unemployment, the collapse of Zimbabwean food production, and the flight of nearly 4 million Zimbabweans out of the country.

Which raises one question: Why hold a vote at all?

"Since liberation, the [ruling] ZANU-PF has see elections as a ritual that has to be gone through to give them legitimacy in the eyes of the region, the continent and the international community," says Ozias Tungwarara, a senior analyst for the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg. The ruling party is now desperate to have that legitimacy, after having lost the first round to Mr. Tsvangirai.

But, he says, "if you give the people even 20 percent of a chance to express themselves, there is no way the Mugabe regime would survive a vote," and thus, the regime uses violence to seal off any chance of legitimate political expression.

That level of repression carries its own dangers, however, he adds. "What we are facing now is that most of the methods of expressing oneself are closed out, and in this very repressed environment, it makes a very volatile and dangerous situation."