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.
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."
Across the country, voters turned out in low numbers, if at all. In the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland in the south and West, voter turnout was estimated to be around 14 percent by the independent civil society group, Bulawayo Agenda. In Gweru, for instance, polling stations opened at 7 a.m., with not a voter in sight. During the first round of March 29, voters in Gweru had queued up for hours before the polling stations opened.
In other regions, voters were seen queuing at the polls, but merely dipped their fingers in the indelible ink and then spoiled their ballots deliberately once inside the polling stations. In the southeastern town of Masvingo, Maj. Gen. Englebert Rugeje was quoted telling a crowd, "We are going to make sure you go and vote, not for any person of your choice, but for President Mugabe." Elsewhere, ad hoc road blocks were seen being set up along major highways, most of them manned by militias in support of Mugabe.
In Harare, members of the ruling ZANU-PF youth militia and war veterans moved from house to house, ordering people to go and vote for Mugabe.
In most parts of the country, those who would have voted were required to go "a Zanu-PF base" and submit their names and the serial number from ballot paper.
"The youth militia were saying if I don't submit my serial number and identification number I will be in big trouble, so I did as they wanted," a young voter who resides in the Highfield neighborhood of Harare told the Monitor. "This is persecution; it should not be allowed to happen in civilized country like Zimbabwe."
Outside Mhiza polling station in Highfield, people could be heard urging each other to spoil their ballots, voting for both Mugabe and Tsvangirai, in order to render the ballot paper unusable.
"What I wanted is to dip my finger into the ink so that when the militia come they will not beat me, because I would have voted," said one voter who did not want to be named for fear of victimization from Mugabe's loyalists.
However, despite the widespread intimidation, some people, especially in Harare's high-density suburbs, did not vote saying they did not want to waste their time participating in any election whose outcome is predetermined. Many stayed home. Even Harare's central business district was deserted.
One resident of Harare's Budiriro, popularly known as "Baghdad" because of its dilapidated state, said he did not see the logic of voting when there is only one contestant. "It makes no sense for anyone to waste voting for a dictator who is in a one man race. Who is he contesting against? He should be ashamed of himself," said a man who only identified himself as Phineas.
By 2 p.m. on Friday, only 25 people had cast their vote at a Red Cross polling station near Rugabe, a high-density suburb. The polling officers were just seated, chatting. "People are not coming to vote. I don't know why," said one of the officers.
In the high-density suburb of Mbare, people were also being forced to go and vote. Vendors who had stalls in the Green Market and Mupedzanhamo Flea Market were not allowed to sell their wares and clothes before voting.
In Murehwa, in the province of Mashonaland East, voters were forced to pass through the village head's homestead before going to vote. There they chanted ZANU-PF slogans before they were ordered to go and vote for Mugabe in groups of fives. "In each group, there was leader who would record his serial number so that it would be easy detect who voted where," says one teacher. "I spoiled my ballot because my conscience told me not to vote for Mugabe, even if it would not change anything."
Elsewhere, ZANU-PF youth militia scanned pedestrians in the streets for the tell-tale red indelible ink on their fingers, showing that they had voted. Those without the red ink marking were ordered to go cast their ballots, and in some cases dragged to polling stations by force.
"I was in the company of my husband – a soldier at 2 Brigade Barracks in Cranborne [Harare] – when the ZANU-PF youths stopped us," says one woman from Harare. "They immediately demanded that we show them our fingers. Unfortunately, I had not voted, so they forced me to accompany them to Sunningdale for voting. My husband could not believe his eyes. He tried to explain to the overzealous youths that he was in the Army, but they ignored him before dragging me away."
The story was the same in the eastern border city of Mutare, where about 25 residents of Sakubva and Dangabvura told reporters that they were forced to join the short queues in the area and cast their ballots.
"This happened in the presence of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer teams," says Tendai Mhike. "Some youths tried to force us to a polling station about 200 meters away, but upon seeing the observer teams, in the vicinity they let us free."
An observer from Tanzania confirmed the incident, but refused to comment further, saying he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Runesu Muzhindu was attacked by war veterans and youth militias shortly after coming out of the polling booth in the town of Bindura.
"I was joking with my friends that I voted for Simba Makoni [a former finance minister who challenged Mugabe], yet in fact there was a provision for two contestants in the ballot paper," says Mr. Muzhindu. "This did not go down well with Mhizha [the local leader of the war veterans], who invited his youth militia to beat up me up and my three friends."
In a letter to his supporters, Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change urged voters to stay home, but if they were forced to go to the polls, he urged voters to act in the interests of their safety, even if it meant casting votes for Mugabe.
"God knows what is in your heart," he wrote. "Don't risk your lives…. If forced to cast your ballot for Mr. Mugabe to avoid personal harm, then, again I say, do it."
Yet, amid this sinister environment, Mugabe extended an olive branch to Tsvangirai's MDC. "We remain open to discussions and proposals that come in good spirit would be listened to [but] not because these have been dictated to us from outside," he told the state-controlled Herald newspaper. "There are countries that have had elections in worse conditions in Africa and we have never interfered."
Tsvangirai, for his part, says that the time to talk was before the runoff. Observers say that mediators between the two camps continue to meet to discuss the possibility of a powersharing agreement between the opposition that won the first round and the government which, despite its shaky legal status, continues to control the Army, the police, and the intelligence agencies.
• Reporters based in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, contributed to this story. Their identities are withheld for security reasons.