Only one in five eligible voters cast a ballot in Saturday's elections in Zimbabwe, a record low turnout that opposition leaders and political analysts called a sign that the nation has lost faith in the ballot box as a means to battle the harsh rule of President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe's ruling party won 43 of 50 contested seats, including 19 for which there was only one candidate; the government will appoint people to fill 16 others, giving it virtually complete control of a new, upper legislative chamber.
But the victory was seen as far from indicative of the president's popularity. Instead, the vote revealed a growing mix of indifference and hostility to elections among both supporters and opponents of Mugabe's government, after six years of elections for various offices and constitutional changes that were marred by violence and charges of rigging.
In most recent elections, there was wide public participation and intense competition. This time, the leading opposition party, split over whether to participate at all, managed to win seven seats in its stronghold in southern Zimbabwe but did not field candidates in about half of the constituencies.
In Saturday's vote, Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, failed to generate more than a fraction of the turnout that the leading state-owned newspaper, the Herald, said was necessary to demonstrate the health of democracy in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has been in power for 25 years.
The extremely poor turnout, the lowest of any election in the country's history, undermined the credibility of the results as well as that of the new Senate. Opponents said the new body has little purpose other than to employ Mugabe cronies who are not already members of parliament. The Senate will have final say on all laws but will wield little real power, analysts said.
"People are now losing confidence in the electoral process," said Reginald Matchaba-Hove, chairman of the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, speaking by telephone from Harare, the capital.
In districts with contested races, only 20 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Overall, including districts without contested races, about 13 percent of more than 5 million eligible Zimbabweans cast a ballot. The previous record low turnout was 32 percent in 1996, a year in which Mugabe ran unopposed for reelection.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose call for an election boycott led to a deep fracture within his Movement for Democratic Change, said Monday that the results made clear that Mugabe's opponents must now concentrate on demonstrations rather than elections.
"The practical way of confronting the regime is to commit mass action," Tsvangirai said from Harare. He declined to say when demonstrations would begin or what form they would take, though in Zimbabwe the term "mass action" can include everything from skipping work to rallying in the streets.
After elections in March, which many observers said were rigged, Tsvangirai expressed deep concern that protests, no matter how peaceful, would inevitably provoke a violent response from Mugabe. Mugabe, who has outlawed most forms of political activity, warned after the March vote that any demonstration would provoke "serious conflict."
But Tsvangirai said Monday that in recent months he has committed himself to organizing and mounting nonviolent protests, even if the response by government forces causes bloodshed. He also said he was willing to go to jail, if necessary, for leading that effort.
"Everyone must take that risk," he said. "Freedom is not cheap."
Still, doubts about Tsvangirai's leadership run deep, even within his own party. A faction that favored participating in Saturday's elections has charged him with reckless, authoritarian actions as party leader. On Sunday, that faction voted to suspend him from his leadership position.
Tsvangirai's recent efforts at mobilizing the opposition have fizzled. In June, a series of protests proved disorganized and ineffective against a government demolition campaign in urban slums and markets that left hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans homeless or jobless.
Meanwhile, Zimbabweans continue to struggle with high inflation, 70 percent unemployment and persistent shortages of food, fuel and clean water. Political analysts say that, six years after the rise of Tsvangirai's party heralded an era of democratic energy, many Zimbabweans are looking for new ways to challenge Mugabe.