As Zimbabwe heads to polls, worries about votes from the cemetery

Could Zimbabwe replace strongman Robert Mugabe? Perhaps, but many worry that voting fraud will tip the scales for him once again.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabweans wait to cast their vote in Presidential and parliamentary elections in the Southern African nation in Harare, Wednesday, July 31. President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for decades with an iron fist, and faces off today for the third time against opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

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Zimbabwe's election today has been referred to as the country's most important since independence in 1980. But it's being overshadowed by allegations of fraud and worries about violence. 

President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for decades with an iron fist, and faces off today for the third time against opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It is Mr. Mugabe’s fifth presidential election.

In the last vote in 2008, Mr. Tsvangirai narrowly won the first round and the election went to a runoff. After claims of violence against his supporters, Tsvangirai dropped out and Mugabe was declared the victor. An estimated 200 people died in election-related violence in the lead-up to the runoff that year, reports The Telegraph.

Mugabe, who is 89 years old and considered the oldest serving world leader, has limited election monitoring, barring Western observers. And allegations of padding the voter rolls are rife. The voter registration list was released on the eve of the election after weeks of delay and the BBC reports that their correspondent has seen the list: "It features the names of thousands of dead people. He says many names with the same address appear two or three times.”  

According to a separate Telegraph report:

Election experts say that the voters roll of 6.4 million voters is inflated by as many as two million "ghosts" and that they fear ballot boxes will be stuffed with votes from non-existent voters for Mr Mugabe and his Zanu PF party at some remote polling stations. There have also been claims that electoral officials manning polling stations in areas where support for the [opposition party] MDC is strong have been told to delay the voting process, and that traditional chiefs in the countryside have, as in previous years, been given incentives to persuade people in their area to vote for [Mugabe’s] Zanu PF.

Security could be a concern in this decisive election. According to The Christian Science Monitor, there is a sense of loyalty to the incumbent among Zimbabwean security forces.

Top army, police, and spy personnel have, in the run-up to the elections, openly supported Mugabe's candidacy, and a number of them have campaigned for the veteran leader.

A senior intelligence official revealed to a reporter recently that some security groups wanted to “block Tsvangirai by any means necessary, because he is an agent of the West and wants to reverse the gains of our independence."

A separate Monitor report notes that unlike the violence of 2008, there is “relative peace" but also “there are reported pockets of violence, and widespread reports indicate that in rural areas, Tsvangirai’s rallies have been blocked by Mugabe’s supporters and security agents.”  

Mugabe has said he will cede power if he is voted out of office, but his comments in recent weeks have also been laced with intimidating language and contradictory statements.

At Mugabe's rally on July 23 in the city of Mutare, about 150 miles southeast of the capital Harare, he ridiculed his main opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in terms that set off fears that Mugabe will not hand over power even if he loses the elections. The polls are now favoring Mr. Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader who now sits in an unequal "coalition" government with the long time ruler….

In Mutare, in front of thousands of supporters, Mugabe said his rival Tsvangirai was “a coward like my Uncle Shoniwa’s dog, Sekahurema, which used to run away from game when we were hunting." Mugabe went on to say, "That stupid dog died without killing a single prey, and the same will happen to Tsvangirai."

The New York Times reports that despite uncertainty surrounding today’s vote, the opposition has come out confidently to challenge Mugabe’s rule.

“I want to see a new Zimbabwe,” said Edison Masunda, a young unemployed mechanic, at an opposition rally on Monday. “We have no fear. Mugabe must go. The people will speak.”

Election results are expected in the next five days, and a runoff, if needed, would take place on Sept. 11.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal notes that this election is in line with the “Intimidation, violence and electorial theft” that have kept Mugabe in power for so long. "What we have here is a peaceful but rigged election," Tsvangirai told the WSJ by telephone from Harare.

The WSJ argues that the international community shouldn’t “go wobbly on Zimbabwe now,” and must hold firm in its demand there be fair elections.

Can an election end Zimbabwe's agony? Probably not. But Mr. Tsvangirai, who ignored calls to stay out of it, makes the case for trying: "A boycott is not a strategy that works. We have always said that fighting a dictator through democratic means is a long, long hard slog. Our people are building up resilience and we are confident they are turning up in their thousands to exercise that right, even if the dictator put in place mechanisms to try to subvert their mandate."

A vote's an opening. Slobodan Milosevic's demise in 2000 started with one.

The difference was that the Serbs had the world's support. South Africa, the critical regional power, has indulged Mr. Mugabe post-Mandela. The EU and U.S. imposed targeted sanctions starting in 2002 but suspended them after a new constitution was adopted this spring. Both appear eager to normalize relations with Harare.

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