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In Zimbabwe, an Irregular But Less Violent Election

Mugabe Lauds 'Free and Fair' Vote as Opposition Cries Foul

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A16

HARARE, Zimbabwe, April 1 -- Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change appears to have run strongly in its urban strongholds, winning 21 of the first 24 seats in national elections announced on Friday morning, but more than 100 seats, including most of those in the ruling party's traditional heartland, remained at play.

Opposition party officials said their informal calculations showed them making gains in some other areas previously held by the party of President Robert G. Mugabe. But the opposition was in danger of losing some seats they previously held, and party officials worried openly about what they said were reportedly high turnouts in rural precincts where the opposition was unable to monitor the counting.


Zimbabwean election officials begin tabulating ballots after polls closed in the national parliamentary election. (Themba Hadebe -- AP)

___ Photo Gallery ___
Zimbabwe Elections
Zimbabweans went to the polls Thursday in an election largely free from violence but not from fear.

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_____Zimbabwe's Election_____
Questions and Answers
_____Washington Post Coverage_____
In Zimbabwe, 'There's No Reason to Be Scared' (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2005)
In Zimbabwe, Withholding of Food Magnifies the Hunger for Change (The Washington Post, Mar 30, 2005)
An Outcast Plots Return In Zimbabwe (The Washington Post, Mar 26, 2005)

The parliamentary seats won in official announcements mostly were in Harare, the capital, and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. The margins were lopsided, as they were for the two rural seats won by Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. Up for election are 120 seats in the 150-seat national legislature. Mugabe will appoint the remaining 30 seats.

"Everybody has seen that they are free and fair elections," Mugabe said after voting in a poor township here in the capital. "The people are behind us. We are going to win. By how much, that is what we are going to see."

But the Movement for Democratic Change said the vote was flawed. "The distorted nature of the pre-election playing field and the failure to address core democratic deficits precluded a free and fair election," it said in a statement released after the polls closed Thursday night.

In Washington, Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, told reporters, "Generally we'd say that the campaigning took place in an atmosphere of intimidation."

Police arrested nearly 100 women on a main square in Harare on Thursday evening as they held a prayer vigil.

There were reports of at least two cases of youths from the ruling party threatening voters and also of attacks on opposition party poll workers. In one rural district, the opposition candidate went into hiding after allegedly being threatened by the ruling party candidate.

Five foreign journalists were arrested or detained by police and several others were threatened with arrest.

Many voters said they feared that the relatively low level of violence would be temporary and the that ruling party's thuggish tactics would return once foreign journalists and independent observers left the country.

A purple dye applied to voters' fingers to prevent a person from casting multiple ballots was easily washed off, and the voter roll had as many as 1 million fictitious voters, including many dead people, the opposition said.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, with five hours of voting left, at least 1 million Zimbabweans out of an electorate of more than 5 million had cast ballots, officials here said. Zimbabwe Electoral Commission officials said on Friday that more than 135,000 voters -- around 10 percent of those who showed up on Thursday -- were turned away from polling stations in six of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces because they lacked proper identification or their names did not appear on the voter roll, said George Chiweshe, chairman of the national election commission. At stake is the political and economic future of a nation of 13 million that was once regarded as one of Africa's most prosperous countries. Mugabe, 81, in power since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, has, over the past five years, cracked down on political dissent, closed independent newspapers and presided over an economic collapse. The country has 80 percent unemployment, widespread food shortages and the world's highest rates of inflation.

Dozens of interviews throughout the rural areas surrounding Harare suggested a weakening of Mugabe's traditional base there but also the enduring popularity of the land redistribution campaign he launched in 2000, when he sanctioned invasions of white-owned commercial farms that were later given to blacks.

"I was in ZANU-PF party, but this time I'm not sure," said Lawrence Ndadziyira, 44, who said he fought under Mugabe in the liberation war of the 1970s but now eats just three days a week. "A lot of people, they are sick and tired about the government."

Fakie Bernard, 34, a former ruling party supporter, said he still admired Mugabe but had lost faith in his party's ability to repair Zimbabwe's economy. "The people, they are crying for hunger," said Bernard, who has been unemployed since October. "It's too hard to find work."

Mugabe supporters said they remained loyal because of the land program, which was criticized internationally as violent and chaotic. Patuma Mudaga, 46, said she received 15 acres, allowing her to support her five children more easily.


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