Some 5.9 million Zimbawean voters are heading to the polls in a general election (presidential and legislative) on Saturday.
The election may be 84-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s biggest challenge since he came to power in the wake of Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980. But the opposition is already crying foul over a vote that leaves little suspense as to his likely re-election.
“It’s a very important election,” says Caroline Dumay, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Johannesburg. “For the opposition this is the chance to fight against a president that doesn’t want to leave his throne on democratic ground.”
Running against Mugabe are veteran opposition leader and former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and former Finance Minister Simba Makoni, who defected from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF ruling party.
Both Tsvangirai and Makoni say only vote rigging can prevent them from winning this time. "We believe there is a very well thought-out, sophisticated and premeditated plan to steal this election from us," Makoni said.
The dismal state of the economy
The opposition believes it has a chance to break through because Mugabe’s economic track record is disastrous.
Up to 80% of the population is unemployed. The 2007 inflation rate topped 100,000%. There is chronic shortage of basics, such as food and fuel. Life expectancy has dropped to 37 years for men and 34 for women, in part due to the rampant HIV/AIDS crisis.
According to Save the Children, a recent survey of 60,000 under-fives found that around 30 per cent of children in rural areas were suffering from long-term malnutrition.
Mugabe has blamed the economic collapse on the West, which imposed sanctions after he allegedly rigged his 2002 re-election.
But Mugabe is expected to cling to power. He has the support of the country’s police and army and has managed to silent the population over the years through a mix of intimidation and security crackdowns.
An opinion poll published Friday by the state-owned Herald newspaper showed Mugabe would win up to 57 percent of the vote.
The problem with ghost voters
The state-appointed Zimbabwe Electoral Commission on Friday rejected opposition accusations that thousands of non-existent "ghost voters," including dead people, were added to the voters roll to ensure ZANU-PF victory.
Most international election observers have been banned from Zimbabwe, except for a team from the regional SADC grouping, which critics accuse of being too soft on Mugabe.
If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote on Saturday, the election will go into a second round, when the two opposition parties would likely unite. Critics say Mugabe will make sure through vote rigging that it doesn’t happen.
As well as voting for a president and 210 members of parliament, voters will choose the make-up of councils nationwide.
The President has already warned his rivals that he won’t tolerate any contest of the election results. But Tsvangirai downplayed the possibility of Kenya-style bloodshed if Mugabe rigged victory. "I am not calling for a demonstration," he said.