Zimbabwe battens down for uneasy election

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

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.

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.

While some, such Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, claim Mugabe has more support than most realize and can win legitimately, by and large neither the outside world nor ordinary Zimbabweans will trust any Mugabe victory.

If Mugabe does declare victory, it is generally expected that a good number of those who stayed in the country with a wait-and-see attitude will leave - joining the 25 percent of productive labor force that has already fled in the past four years. And that many others, especially in the urban areas, will take to the streets in protest.

"People have pegged their hopes for change on this election, and frustration will be tremendous. Explosions come when there is no recourse," says Brian Kogoro, director of Crisis in Zimbabwe, a civic-society umbrella organization. "Mugabe can claim victory but not legitimacy, and with no food, no work, and no recourse, people will certainly revolt. They have nothing to lose."

"The people have been wanting to rise up against the government for a long time, but the opposition held them down - saying they were going to win," adds Mhanda. He explains that the revolt will be organized, and he admits that preparations are already under way. "Aims are being debated. Discussions are focused on whether there should be call for a recount of votes or simply a power takeover," he says. "In any case, reaction will be immediate. We can't wait. We are chomping at the bit."

What results such a revolt will bring, however, depends on how the military responds. Those Army generals who have risen within Mugabe's system of patronage, and who have become rich off looting diamond mines in Congo, are none too keen to see the president lose power. In fact, the top brass have made it clear that they will respect only one outcome. The Defense force commander, Gen. Vitalis Zvinavashe, has said that he will not serve a president who does not have a liberation war background. Tsvangirai, a former miner and union boss, has no such background.

The real question seems to be what the lower-ranking military men will do if forced to choose between turning their guns on civilians or on their superiors. "These young military men are the key," says Sithole. "The Army is more than a handful of generals, and the rank and file don't ride in Mercedes or have exorbitant salaries."

Sithole believes these men, who live meagre lives, would be unlikely to support Mugabe in such a scenario. "They will come together and tell Mugabe: 'Listen, you don't have a chance of resisting the will of the people. Call Morgan and concede the elections. They will dial the numbers.' "

Mhanda is not so sure. "This is an academic debate. We will have to wait and see," he says.

"On Saturday and Sunday, I predict quiet," says one Western diplomat. "It's in Mugabe's interest to make elections look as free and fair as possible, and Tsvangirai wants to maintain quiet so that as many people as possible come out to vote."

On Monday and Tuesday, there will also be quiet, continues the diplomat - who had just finished sending off to South Africa all the dependents in his embassy - because everyone will be waiting to hear the results, and there is no point in making noise before that. "The announcement will come on Wednesday or Thursday," he concludes. "And then hell will break loose." Perhaps not coincidentally, Thursday is also the day on which every accredited foreign journalist's visa to Zimbabwe runs out.

Back at the Fabulous Beauty Salon, Nancy is still leafing through women's magazines, waiting for all her hair extensions to be braided. Her hairdo should stay in shape for at least a month. "I hope by then we will be over the worst, and this country will calm down so I can come get it reset and rebraided," she says. "But who knows?"

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