Tense vote this week in Zimbabwe

With five days left before parliamentary elections, President Mugabe is block-ing opposition campaigns.

Aloyis Mudzingwa's campaign supporters sometimes do their work by moonlight.

In his rural Zimbabwe constituency, they covertly paint his name on large rocks by the side of the road. And as they drive through the streets, his campaign workers hurl election pamphlets out the windows.

"That is the only [safe] way of campaigning we have left," Mr. Mudzingwa told international election observers this week.

A parliamentary candidate for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mudzingwa's constituency is Murehwa North, about 60 miles east of Harare. It is - like much of Zimbabwe - a virtual no-go area for opposition candidates who are fighting an uphill battle against President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

Despite the deployment this week of hundreds of international election observers, tension continues to mount as Zimbabwe moves closer to June 24-25 parliamentary elections that represent the first major challenge to Mr. Mugabe's ruling party in 20 years.

"We must accept that we have a real battle here," the visibly angry president told just 5,000 people Saturday in a Harare stadium where, on his return from exile in 1980, more than 100,000 gathered to cheer him.

In the same stadium yesterday, an estimated 10,000 MDC supporters gathered to hear their candidates speak.

A poll published on Friday indicated that the MDC could win 70 of the 120 contested parliamentary seats, but government ministers have dismissed the survey as inaccurate.

Most of the parliamentary seats in contention are in rural areas where thousands of veterans of the 1980 war for independence and party youths now occupy some 1,500 white-owned commercial farms. These groups effectively act as a ruling party militia, forcing rural voters to go to campaign rallies, holding all-night indoctrination sessions on occupied farms, and physically blocking campaign rallies in rural areas that ZANU-PF considers its political heartland.

MDC party leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who travels with an entourage of support vehicles, has better access to rural areas than Mudzingwa, but his movement has been limited too.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Tsvangirai attempted to hold a rally in Murehwa but a brawl erupted between his advance team and ZANU-PF supporters. When Tsvangirai arrived for the rally, some 3,000 ZANU-PF supporters and war veterans armed with clubs occupied the site and police barred Tsvangirai from the town.

"It is a strategy. We schedule a rally and they go after and book the place and the police block you. They are trying to say we should not campaign in these places," Tsvangirai says.

So far the presence of international observers has not notably improved the situation. Five major Tsvangirai rallies and many smaller rallies by MDC candidates were blocked last week.

After Tsvangirai's motorcade was stoned and a rally blocked by ZANU-PF in Honde Valley, about 110 miles east of Harare, he tried to get a European Union observer team to accompany him back to Harare. The EU team declined for fear of being stoned itself and Tsvangirai was subsequently stoned a second time. The observers, facing the same risk of violence, have been disorganized and slow in deploying to rural areas.

"Unfortunately, the international observers are sitting in international hotel rooms and don't know what is going on," Tsvangirai complained last week. Since his complaint, observer deployments have increased.

"What has happened in Zimbabwe over the last few months is a complete subversion of the democratic electoral process," says Tony Reeler, director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, a coalition of independent groups monitoring the violence.

"Free and fair elections are not possible," Mr. Reeler told a news conference in Harare.

The Forum says more than 13,000 people have fled rural violence and sought refuge in towns and cities. Reeler says unruly MDC supporters have increasingly been involved in violent clashes, but the vast majority of incidents recorded by the group were launched by ZANU-PF backers. At least 30 people have been killed in political violence so far.

Despite the violence, campaigning continues. On the stump, Tsvangirai continues to focus on the country's economic collapse, high unemployment, crippling interest and inflation rates and fuel shortages that have brought much of the economy to a standstill.

For his part, Mugabe's speeches and advertisements continue to portray Tsvangirai as a stooge of white interests and the British. At the Saturday rally, the last major campaign event in Harare before elections, Mugabe spoke for an hour about colonialism, the evils of the British, unfulfilled British aid promises and white influence behind the MDC. "This struggle is against the whites and the British. Let the Britons rule Britain and the Zimbabweans rule their own country," he said.

In the last 10 minutes he mentioned the economic crisis, which he blamed on white business which he said took advantage of the end of price controls six years ago. "So we are now giving the government the power to limit the price of everything. No one will be allowed to raise the price of anything without government permission," Mugabe says.

Mugabe's appeals to patriotism and emphasis on his role as the leader of the liberation from white rule remain deeply evocative to many Zimbabweans.

Although Tsvangirai clearly has wide support, Mugabe retains huge advantages. Mugabe appoints 30 members of the 150 seat Parliament, which means the MDC must win 75 of 120 elected seats to command a majority.

If, as the latest poll suggests, the MDC took 70 seats, that would be an impressive win in a Parliament where the opposition currently holds only three seats. But it still would be too little for the MDC to take control.

*Material from the wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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