HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe may be the only candidate contesting Friday's internationally condemned election in Zimbabwe, but opposition party officials said Thursday that militias loyal to him have threatened people across the country: Show up to vote or else.
In Chitungwiza, a working-class suburb of the capital, Harare, residents said that men in police uniforms barged into at least 11 homes Wednesday night and warned the occupants to vote.
In Marondera, 45 miles southeast of Harare, a gang of young Mugabe supporters — clad in the ruling party's signature green bandannas — confronted a resident at his home Thursday morning warning that if he didn't vote, they'd kill him.
Mugabe's victory was assured days ago when challenger Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the race. Dozens of Tsvangirai's supporters have been killed in what diplomats and human rights groups describe as a state-sponsored terror campaign against his popular opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
But Mugabe, whose 28-year dictatorship has driven this southern African nation to the brink of economic collapse, hasn't let up. Although he's blamed opponents for the election violence, critics say that his regime is using force and intimidation to guarantee a high voter turnout Friday and therefore a mandate — however dubious — that he can flaunt before his growing legion of critics in Africa and around the world.
Nelson Mandela, the iconic former South African president who led the drive against apartheid, became the latest world leader to speak out against Mugabe, condemning Zimbabwe's "tragic failure of leadership" in a speech Wednesday night in London. Officials in Mugabe's regime have dismissed the remark.
"This has become a referendum on Mugabe, so their ultimate strategy is to get out as many people as possible to vote," said Priscilla Misihairanbwi-Mushonga, a former member of parliament from an opposition faction that backs Tsvangirai. "The election is a charade and they need voters to play their part."
In her constituency of Glenorah, a low-income section of Harare, Misihairanbwi-Mushonga said dozens of residents had reported receiving threats from Mugabe loyalists. She's advised opposition backers to vote to ensure their security, but to make incomplete or double marks if they want to render the ballots invalid.
Tsvangirai's name remains on the ballot because the government election commission ruled that his petition to withdraw wasn't submitted at least 21 days before the election, in accordance with the law. The United States, Britain and several African nations have called for the vote to be postponed, but Mugabe has refused to bow to what he jeeringly calls a Western plot to re-colonize Zimbabwe.
The election-eve tactics appear to be an extension of a highly organized program of violence that was unleashed after the first-round election in March, when Tsvangirai won 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe's 43 percent, necessitating a runoff. Tsvangirai says that at least 86 opposition supporters have been killed and thousands injured.
Rural areas — where the majority of Zimbabweans live and where Mugabe had solid support in the past — continue to bear the brunt of the attacks, according to residents interviewed by telephone. In Marondera, 28-year-old Shingirai, who asked that his full name be withheld for his safety, said that a gang of about a dozen youths appeared at his doorstep twice Thursday with strict instructions for election day.
They said that they'd be at the local polling station to make sure he voted, and they ordered him to report the serial number printed on his ballot, "so they know I voted for ZANU-PF," Shingirai said, referring to Mugabe's ruling party.
And they left a stark warning.
"They want to see the red ink on my hand," stamped by polling agents to signify that someone has voted, he said. "Otherwise they will kill me."
Still, Shingirai said, he couldn't support Mugabe, whose policies have led to such calamitous inflation that a loaf of bread now costs about 3.5 billion Zimbabwean dollars, roughly 35 U.S. cents. He said he planned to flee into the countryside early Friday morning with his wife and young child.
Opposition leaders say that the scare tactics are having an impact.
"Many people have been told that if they haven't got red ink on their hands, they've got a problem," said Iain Kay, an opposition member of parliament from Marondera. "People will vote ZANU-PF in the interest of their own safety."