Zimbabwe vote: land vs. law and order

Redistribution of land resonates with President Mugabe's backers in run up to Saturday's election.

For Jerry Mugabe, a Harare hawker who waited in the hot midday sun this weekend to hear his president speak, Zimbabwe's coming election is about one thing and one thing only: land.

"He is good for the people," Mr. Mugabe said of President Robert Mugabe (no relation), who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. "He is giving us the land back."

In four days, the people of Zimbabwe will go to the polls in the most hotly contested election in the country's 21 years of independence. Voters will choose between President Mugabe, who promises to continue redistributing white-owned land to blacks, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who says he will return the country to law and order after an election that has thus far been characterized by violence and intimidation.

Mugabe, leader of the ruling ZANU-PF party, calls this election the "Third Chimurenga" - or revolution in Zimbabwe's most widely-spoken language, Shona - and says victory over Zimbabwe's white colonizers will be complete only when the majority of the country's land is in the hands of black people.

Until two years ago, when Zimbabwe launched its controversial land redistribution program, about 4,000 white commercial farmers owned half of Zimbabwe's farmland. In an attempt to woo voters in the run-up to the country's 2000 parliamentary elections, Mugabe's government backed land invasions, often violent, by landless squatters who called themselves veterans of the country's independence war. The government began listing white-owned farms for redistribution.

Speaking to voters this weekend in a series of campaign rallies, the president vowed to continue with his controversial land-redistribution program "at any cost," despite international pressure to respect the rule of law.

"They wanted us to send the Army and the police force [to the occupied farms] to remove the war veterans," he said, referring to Zimbabwe's former colonial power, Britain. "But the Zimbabwean people would not stand for it."

That message has struck a cord for voters like Jerry Mugabe, who says his family recently received five acres of land near the Eastern city of Masvingo, which his wife farms, planting corn and peanuts, while he works in the city.

The violence of the last two years have destabilized Zimbabwe's economy, causing hyperinflation and widespread food shortages. For the first time in almost a decade, international aid groups have had to import corn to a country that once fed much of the region.

Mr. Tsvangirai's party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the international community blame government policy for the crisis and say the bulk of land seized has gone to ZANU-PF officials rather than common people like the Mugabe family in Masvingo. For their part, the MDC has promised to bring transparency and order to the land issue.

But Mugabe's version of land reform retains a strong appeal for some voters, especially those in rural areas. At a ZANU-PF women's rally in Marondera - a farming community about 40 miles from Harare where the land invasions first began in 2000 - more than a thousand women wore their political affiliations on their backs. Their colorful dresses of yellow, red, and green were decorated with Mr. Mugabe's picture and ZANU-PF slogans.

One woman raised a hand full of party-supplied sadza, a stiff corn gruel that is a staple food in Zimbabwe, said enthusiastically: "This is what we are fighting for."

Aside from the land issue, the main question surrounding the coming election is whether or not it will be free and fair. Although observer teams from other African nations and the Commonwealth say they still have hopes that it will be, human- rights groups and the opposition party say the government is waging an intimidation campaign against MDC supporters and forcing voters to attend ZANU-PF functions.

Organizers of the women's rally deny this accusation. They maintain that the women came to show their support for the president and not for the food being given away, though the organizers refused to let any of the women speak to international reporters.

"I assure you that we are going to win," said Lawrence Katsiru, the local ZANU-PF secretary for security. "But we want to win nonviolently."

Only a day earlier, however, a planned MDC rally was cancelled after the opposition party heard rumors of a planned attack on Mr. Tsvangirai's caravan.

And two local MDC supporters who spoke only on condition of anonymity said the ZANU-PF-led reign of terror had forced hundreds of opposition supporters to flee the area. Even wearing MDC paraphernalia or speaking to international observers could endanger their lives, they said. The MDC claims at least 107 of its supporters have been killed over the past 2 years.

At Mr. Mugabe's weekend rallies in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, both MDC strongholds, thousands showed up to hear the president speak.

But the enthusiasm of the crowds at ZANU-PF and MDC events were markedly different. Mr. Mugabe's supporters were mostly silent, while Mr. Tvangarai's cheered loudly, hands raised in the open palm salute of the MDC.

Tracy Mutinhiri, a minor ZANU-PF official in Marondera, however, remained convinced that her party, the party that brought freedom to Zimbabwe, would win. For her, as for Jerry Mugabe, the election is about land and finishing the revolution.

"The MDC is supported by young people who don't understand their history," she said. "But we have been teaching them that ZANU-PF is for the people. They are learning that the MDC has nothing to offer. They do not have an ideology, especially on the land issue."

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