HARARE, Zimbabwe — Bowing to a government campaign of violence and intimidation, Zimbabweans voted Friday in a one-man election that's almost certain to hand another five-year term to President Robert Mugabe.
As gangs of muscled youths ordered people to polling stations and threatened voters with beatings or death if they didn't have red ink on their fingers — evidence that they'd cast ballots — Mugabe prepared to claim victory in a rubber-stamp race that much of the world has declared a travesty.
His rival, the popular opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who won the first round but fell short of an absolute majority, pulled out of the presidential runoff Sunday after dozens of his supporters were killed in state-sponsored attacks. Mugabe, who's ruled the southern African nation for nearly three decades, has vowed not to cede power whatever the result.
Although turnout was low, according to observers, the early morning headline in the state-run Herald newspaper was "ZANU-PF gears for victory," referring to Mugabe's all-powerful ruling party.
His violent re-election campaign has eliminated hopes for a peaceful transition to a post-Mugabe era. His win figures only to prolong the economic cataclysm over which he's presided: annual inflation of nearly 200,000 percent, severe shortages of food and fuel and the flight of hundreds of thousands to neighboring countries.
Election observers reported that voters in many parts of the country were being ordered to go to polling places and to report the serial numbers on their ballot papers to ZANU-PF supporters, presumably so that their votes could be traced.
"Suspected ZANU-PF supporters are moving door to door, calling on all registered voters to go and vote. This is happening in a number of places," said Rindai Chipfunde Vava, the director of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an independent observer group.
Trying to pump up turnout for an election that the United States and many European and African nations have called illegitimate, ruling-party youth militias warned voters that they'd be inspected Friday for red ink on their left pinkie fingers, stamped by poll workers to prevent people from voting more than once.
"People are just voting so that the troubles can be over. If you vote for ZANU-PF, you don't fear," said a 28-year-old secretary who cast her ballot for Mugabe in Glenview, a poor suburb of Harare, the capital. Like many voters, she asked that her name be withheld for her safety.
Tsvangirai's name remained on the ballot because he didn't withdraw within 21 days of the vote as required by law. His party peppered parts of Harare with leaflets overnight telling residents not to vote. But Tsvangirai — who took shelter Sunday in the Dutch embassy in Harare — later issued a statement that reflected the intense fear gripping opposition supporters.
"Whatever might happen, the results ... will not be recognized by the world," Tsvangirai said. "No matter what you are forced to do, we know what is in your heart. Don't risk your life."
With results expected within days, the stage will shift next week to a summit of African Union nations in Egypt, which Mugabe is expected to attend. Tsvangirai has called for African peacekeepers to stabilize the country, but Mugabe has said no country will dictate terms to him.
"I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me, and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine," he told a rally this week.
On Friday, state television showed a smiling Mugabe, wearing an impeccably tailored suit, joking with poll workers as he voted alongside his wife. Asked by one journalist how he felt, the 84-year-old Mugabe responded, "Very fit, very optimistic, upbeat — and hungry." It was the only question asked of him.
Coming to power in 1980, Mugabe initially championed reconciliation between newly independent black Zimbabweans and the small white minority that had long ruled what was then known as Rhodesia. But the government-backed invasions of white-owned farms that started a decade ago have driven the economy to ruin, and now Mugabe belittles Tsvangirai as a pawn of Western nations, chiefly Britain, the former colonial power.
Since March — when Tsvangirai narrowly edged out Mugabe in the first-round election but apparently failed to secure an overall majority of votes — the president has tried to destroy the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai says that state-sponsored militias have killed at least 86 opposition supporters, abducted scores of others and abused more than 3,000, sending untold numbers into hiding in dense forests and remote mountain villages across the country.
During the runoff campaign, the government blocked access to the airwaves, barred opposition rallies and jailed Tsvangirai's top strategist on treason charges, which carry a possible death sentence.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups of fearsome-looking young men — wearing green bandannas identifying them as members of the militias known as "ZANU-PF youth" — rampaged around the country, stoning and looting the homes of opposition supporters in vehicles often bearing no license plates.
In Mbare, a hardscrabble section of Harare with a sprawling secondhand market, a 24-year-old clothing vendor named Eddie said that he'd voted for Mugabe because ZANU-PF youth had threatened to seize his market stall and beat him if he didn't.
"I voted for ZANU-PF because of my job," he said. "That is true of everyone here. They are just afraid."
For the past several weeks, Eddie said, the youth militias forced him and hundreds of other market workers to attend near-daily "re-education meetings," at which they swore allegiance to Mugabe and sang songs with names such as "Forward With ZANU-PF."
On voting day, Eddie said that he was so overcome with nerves that he forgot to note the serial number of his ballot paper. But the militia leader who was waiting for him outside the polling station noted the red stain on his pinkie and let him go.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008