The people of Zimbabwe have started voting in the country's presidential, legislative and local elections. The army and police have been put on high alert to thwart threats of violence. (Story: A.Roy)
HARARE - Zimbabwe's security forces went on full alert on Friday to quash violence during the most crucial election since independence, with President Robert Mugabe facing the biggest challenge of his 28-year rule.
In one of his last rallies before Saturday's poll, Mugabe struck a familiar theme, mocking the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and attacking former colonial power Britain.
"This is a vote against the British. The fight is not against the MDC ... the MDC is just a puppet, a mouthpiece of the British," he told 6,000 people on the outskirts of Harare.
Mugabe blames sanctions by Britain and other Western nations for the collapse of the economy in his once-prosperous nation, now suffering the world's highest inflation, at 100,000 percent, a virtually worthless currency, and food and fuel shortages.
Opponents blame his policies for ruining Zimbabwe.
Army and police chiefs say they will not accept an opposition victory, stoking accusations that Mugabe will use the power of his incumbency to rig the election.
Zimbabwe's state-owned Herald newspaper said on Friday an opinion poll indicated Mugabe would be re-elected with about 57 percent of the vote. Analysts said this could be a way of preparing the population for a Mugabe victory.
The survey itself was not immediately available but it was conducted by a university lecturer regarded as sympathetic to the government.
Police chief Augustine Chihuri said on Friday security and defence forces had been put on full alert and would not allow declarations of victory before official results were announced -- expected to take several days.
"May we remind everyone that those who think and do evil must fear, for the defence and security forces are up to the task Results," he told a news conference, flanked by army and security chiefs.
Voting is due to start at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and end 12 hours later.
Mugabe faces his most formidable challenge in Saturday's presidential, parliamentary and council elections, with a two- pronged assault from ruling party defector Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the biggest MDC faction.
Both hope to exploit misery caused by a catastrophic economic crisis they blame on Mugabe, who took power at independence in 1980 after leading a guerrilla war against white rule.
Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Chairman George Chiweshe rejected opposition allegations that the voter roll is riddled with "ghost voters" to rig the poll in Mugabe's favour.
"Deaths occur everyday, we will never be able to catch up with them. And even the process of notifying the registrar-general takes some time, and during that period we will have a dead person on our voters' roll," he told reporters.
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. Analysts say Mugabe will do his utmost, including rigging, to avoid this happening.
Analysts would also expect a violent crackdown against MDC supporters in the three-week hiatus between the two votes.
Tsvangirai, widely seen as the strongest challenger to Mugabe, said in an interview on Friday that he would invite moderate members of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party into a national unity government if he wins the election.
"There has to be consultation with the leadership of the reform elements, not the rabid elements, those who want to see the government moving forward," he told the Financial Times.
Tsvangirai, like most observers, downplayed the possibility of Kenya-style bloodshed if Mugabe rigged a victory. "I am not calling for a demonstration," he said.
Tsvangirai wound up his campaign with a rally at Domboshava, a semi-rural area 30 km (20 miles) north of Harare, telling a crowd of about 2,000 people that security forces who served under Mugabe would not face retribution if he wins the election.
Tsvangirai mocked Mugabe for blaming Western sanctions, which include travel bans on ZANU-PF leaders, for Zimbabwe's crisis.
"If someone says 'Mugabe and your wife, you've stolen too much money to go and shop at Harrods in England ... are those sanctions?'," he asked. Most international election observers have been banned from Zimbabwe, except for a team from the regional SADC grouping, which critics accuse of taking too soft a line with Mugabe.
Date created : 2008-03-29