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Glimmers of Defiance In a Wary Zimbabwe

Discontent Evident Even in Mugabe Strongholds

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A14

HARARE, Zimbabwe, April 4 -- As grim resignation settled over Zimbabwe's capital, there were few visible signs that last week's parliamentary elections -- and the resulting landslide for the party of President Robert Mugabe -- had happened at all. Most people returned to the demanding business of surviving in one of the world's worst economies and put aside stirring notions of change, at least for now.

Mugabe, the vigorous and wily 81-year-old who is the only leader this nation has had in 25 years of independence, is known here variously as "Uncle Bob," "Comrade Bob" or simply "the Old Man." And he is yet again seemingly in complete command of Zimbabwe. Opposition leaders have denounced Thursday's elections, which left them with 16 fewer seats in parliament than the 57 they once held, as fraudulent, but they have publicly ruled out either a legal challenge or mass protests. A small protest attempted here Monday afternoon quickly fizzled.

A Zimbabwean opposition supporter waved the party's open-palm symbol Friday before the scope of the ruling party's win became apparent. (Howard Burditt -- Reuters)

Yet despite the opposition's poor showing in official results, the final days of last week's election campaign revealed a spirit of defiance rarely seen in the five previous years of increasingly authoritarian rule by Mugabe.

The main opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is viewed here as the party of urban youth, a long-term advantage in a country that increasingly is urban and young. Most Zimbabweans are not old enough to have experienced white minority rule or Mugabe's leadership of the 1970s insurrection that helped end it.

Even in the countryside -- where support for Mugabe is supposedly strongest and where official vote totals showed his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, with huge margins of victory -- voters on election day flashed the opposition's signature open-palm gesture. A group of peasant women walking down a dirt road with sugar cane in their hands did not want to talk to a stranger, but when pressed gently about the election, they silently showed their open palms.

Elsewhere, former Mugabe loyalists said that his party's dominance of the nation must end if Zimbabwe hopes to escape its international isolation and halt a precipitous economic decline.

Four men, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, stood on the side of the main road in a rural village west of here on voting day. Each had voted for Mugabe in all previous elections, yet on this day they spoke openly of their dissatisfaction and their longing to see the opposition take power.

Even more strikingly in a nation where to support the opposition is to risk beating and torture, two of the four men willingly gave their names and ages to a foreign journalist, despite knowing they might appear in a newspaper that Mugabe's party officials would read. "Most people are suffering, no food, no jobs. . . . Maybe the MDC will win," said Smart Madhola, 56, a security guard.

The willingness to speak out dimmed a bit after the voting, as it became clear that the overwhelming victory of Mugabe's party had given the president an even freer hand to rewrite the constitution -- or do almost anything else he pleased.

But on Saturday, opposition activist Aiden Turai Mpani, 28, said he was prepared to demonstrate in the streets, risking almost certain arrest and beating by police, to protest election results he was certain were the result of rigging. Asked if he really wanted to be quoted by name under such conditions, he said confidently, "With pleasure."

Though violence was down in the weeks before Thursday's elections, human rights groups have reported widespread killings of opposition candidates and supporters in the past five years. Opposition leaders put the total at more than 300 since it formed in 1999.

Most Zimbabweans lack access to such reports, but they know the brutal history of Mugabe and his supporters. They know he oversaw the slaughter of as many as 20,000 Ndebeles, members of a large southern tribe that had resisted his rule, in the 1980s. They know that more recently, opposition activists often have simply disappeared or been arrested for crimes they didn't commit. They know, as human rights groups have long detailed, that torture and the withholding of food aid have been common government tactics. So has threatening to burn down the house of an opposition member -- and sometimes doing it.

On election day, a 34-year-old man in a town east of here spent several minutes explaining his eagerness for the opposition to take power. He, too, gave his name before thinking better of allowing it to be published. Even though he knew the level of violence was relatively low in this election, he also knew what had happened in 2000 and 2002.

Was he scared?

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