- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

HARARE, Zimbabwe Conditions for "credible democratic elections" do not exist in Zimbabwe following a three-month campaign of political violence that has bred an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, a multinational election observer mission said in a report yesterday.

"I have been on the ground in 35 elections, and conditions here are among the worst I have seen," said Patrick Merloe, a senior associate at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which organized the mission.

The NDI, which has observed elections in more than 50 countries over 16 years and is loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party, spent the past 10 days interviewing members of the government, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, election-body officials, the opposition and civil society groups.

The government of President Robert Mugabe has not worked to create the conditions for free and fair elections, the group said in a report on its findings.

At least 23 persons 18 black opposition members, four white farmers and a black policeman have been killed and hundreds of black farm workers beaten or raped in a three-month campaign of farm invasions and terror. Since February, more than 1,000 white-owned farms have been invaded by black Zimbabweans seeking to take the land.

The government also has said it will strip white Zimbabweans of their citizenship if they also hold British passports. Losing their citizenship would mean the dual passport holders, primarily Zimbabwe's 86,000 whites, would not be able to vote in parliamentary elections in June. White Zimbabweans condemned the effort as blatant intimidation.

"Political violence over the period since Zimbabwe's February 2000 constitutional referendum has created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear. It has substantially restricted the exercise of freedoms of opinion, expression, association, assembly and movement, as well as the right to be secure from physical harm due to political affiliation," Mr. Merloe said.

"The abilities of political parties and many candidates, predominantly from the opposition, to campaign openly and freely do not meet international standards for fair electoral competition," he said.

"Even if [the violence stops], a lot of damage has been done, and a lot of other problems exist," Mr. Merloe said.

But a spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF dismissed the NDI stance, saying it was based on thin and unreliable evidence.

"It is a premature pre-election statement, and it is best based on thin evidence," ZANU-PF spokesman Jonathan Moyo said.

He said the report failed to mention a single case of violence perpetrated by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) "and creates the impression that all the violence has come from ZANU-PF. That alone makes the entire report unauthentic."

Minister of Information Chenhamo Chimutengwende dismissed the report's assertion that violence prevents free and fair elections.

"When we had independence elections in 1980, there was worse violence than this, and those elections were declared free and fair. I think it is too early to make such a statement," he said.

Zimbabwe, facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980, goes to the polls June 24 and 25 with a ballot pitting ZANU-PF against the 8-month-old MDC, led by former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai.

The six-member NDI team, drawn from Nigeria, Namibia, Mozambique, Canada, Kenya and the United States, said conditions in Zimbabwe were such that special measures were needed to ensure fair elections.

It listed 10 conditions it deemed vital for the elections, including an end to violence, inspection of voter rolls, more broadcast time for the opposition and free access for election monitors and observers.

It noted that Zimbabwe's electoral framework does not offer a "level playing field." The state funds political parties in proportion to their representation in parliament and given ZANU-PF's 147 to 3 control of parliament, only the ruling party receives funding, NDI said.

The Movement for Democratic Change on Friday filed a court action, expected to be heard Thursday, which demands immediate release of the voters roll, the parliamentary district boundaries and delay of the May 29 date for turning in candidate nominations.

The six-member NDI mission was led by Alex Ekwueme, former vice president of Nigeria from 1979 to 1983. Mandla Mchunu, chief electoral officer of the South African Independent Electoral Commission, was among the technical advisers to the mission.

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