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Prodded by Fear and Duress, Zimbabweans Go to the Polls

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 28, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe, June 27 -- President Robert Mugabe's militias drove a frightened electorate to the polls Friday, checking off names of voters and threatening vengeance on those who failed to cast ballots for the only man ever to rule Zimbabwe.

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Voters said ruling party officials forced them to register their names, addresses and national identification numbers before entering polling stations. On leaving, they were told to report the last three digits of their ballot's serial number so their choice could be monitored. To make the job easier, Mugabe's party set up makeshift command centers near many polling stations.

"We have been warned that we will lose our house if we don't vote for" Mugabe, said Spencer Mashonga, 25, whose parents live in subsidized government housing. "So we just have to vote. It's not like we want to vote."

Cecil Zhangazha, 47, a liberation war veteran and a polling agent for Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, known by its acronym ZANU-PF, stood near the entrance of a polling station in rural Dema and greeted voters with a list of those expected to cast ballots for Mugabe.

"We've been educating people," Zhangazha said. "We believe they are all going to vote for ZANU-PF. That we have made sure of."

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe in the March 29 presidential election but narrowly missed an absolute majority, setting up the runoff. Mugabe's party also lost control of parliament in the initial vote but had rallied for Friday's vote by deploying a systematic campaign of violence never before seen in a Zimbabwean election.

Many Zimbabweans awoke Friday to the sounds of ruling party youths marching through the streets of their neighborhoods, singing songs about Mugabe and demanding that voters turn out even though Tsvangirai had dropped out of the race Sunday amid the campaign violence, which has left his party shattered. Tsvangirai has spent most of his time since then in the Dutch Embassy, afraid of arrest, assault or worse.

Despite the pressure, Zimbabweans at more than a dozen polling stations in Harare, the capital, and surrounding areas showed little interest in voting. Lines were rarely more than a few people long throughout the day. Police and soldiers were far more plentiful, inside and outside the polling stations. Local election officers rebuffed questions about turnout, though national officials claimed it was high.

The death toll over the past three months has exceeded 80, with tens of thousands of others wounded or driven from their homes. Entire families have been brutalized -- shot, whipped, poisoned, beaten with iron bars and forced to publicly renounce their political views.

The violence has generated an international outcry, including uncommonly harsh rebukes from Mugabe's fellow African leaders. The crisis is expected to be a major topic of discussion at a meeting of the African Union in Egypt next week.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday saying it was a "matter of deep regret that elections went ahead in these circumstances." But South Africa, whose president, Thabo Mbeki, has been reluctant to criticize Mugabe, derailed a U.S. and British effort to have the election declared illegitimate.

Following the meeting, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he has begun discussions with select council members on a resolution that would impose unspecified sanctions on Zimbabwe if it continued to flout international calls for restraint.


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