- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe Charges of vote rigging and threats of violence confronted voters at today's onset of a two-day election that marks the biggest challenge ever to President Robert Mugabe's two-decade rule.

Mobs loyal to Mr. Mugabe continued to intimidate voters yesterday and at one point detained 40 poll watchers from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and turned them over to police.

MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai vowed to win.

"Despite everything that has happened and is happening, we are still confident of winning, and we are saying this not simply because we want to show a brave face," he said.

Mr. Mugabe spent the final day of his campaign by returning to a rural stronghold of his country's 1970s independence war and vowing to complete the job of seizing land from white farmers and giving it to landless blacks.

"Tomorrow, we will complete the fight, the third [uprising]. We will win a resounding victory," Mr. Mugabe said.

Mr. Mugabe is attempting to defend his 22-year grip on power against the challenge from Mr. Tsvangirai in a country increasingly plagued by food shortages, unemployment and rampant inflation.

Mr. Tsvangirai's 3-year-old MDC, which won nearly half the country's parliamentary seats in June 2000, is mounting the first real challenge to Mr. Mugabe's power since independence in 1980.

Election polls show the opposition leader in the lead, despite widespread attacks on opposition supporters.

"As soon as we get into power, I am going to ensure that [corn] meal, cooking oil and all the foods that are in short supply are available," Mr. Tsvangirai told supporters in Harare, where people line up for hours outside the few stores selling staple foods.

As candidates made their last-minute appeals to voters, there was widespread confusion over election laws and the location of polling stations.

During the past week, the government and courts have handed down a baffling array of election laws, most aimed at disenfranchising opposition supporters.

In some areas considered opposition strongholds, the government had yet to publish the location of polling stations.

Late Thursday night, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court, which is stacked with pro-Mugabe judges, overturned a previous high court ruling that would have allowed tens of thousands of dual-citizenship holders to vote in this weekend's election.

Among the affected are much of Zimbabwe's white minority, which makes up less than 1 percent of the country's population but owns 50 percent of the country's farmland, and black farm workers born in neighboring countries.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Mugabe issued a presidential decree overruling another high court ruling that had struck down a series of new election laws passed in parliament.

Under new laws, voters in urban areas may be required to show proof of residence, such as an electricity bill, even if their names are already on the voters' roll.

That could be a barrier for many urbanites, most of whom support the opposition and live in shantytowns without electricity or running water.

In Chitungwisa, a sprawling urban area of metal shacks and tiny concrete houses near Harare, people said yesterday they were unaware of the new laws.

"Most people here haven't heard about that," said Casper Muyambo, 38. "I think it will be a bit difficult because people here don't have things like electricity bills."

Meanwhile, an independent election monitoring group found Zimbabwe's voter rolls in disarray.

Nearly half the 1,675 voters in the survey were registered in the wrong district. An additional 20 percent, mostly urban residents, will have to travel back to their home districts at great expense if they want to vote.

Mr. Tsvangirai is considered the strongest candidate in cities while Mr. Mugabe is believed to hold an edge in rural areas.

Despite the confusion, most Zimbabweans interviewed yesterday said they were eager to go to the polls, and they still hold out hope that the will of the people will be respected.

"I will be there tomorrow at 8 a.m. to vote for change," said one Chitungwisa woman, who expressed confidence that Mr. Tsvangirai will win in a free election. But if the election is not fair, she warned that violence could follow.

"Obviously, there is going to be violence if [Mr. Mugabe] wins because the people are hungry," she said.

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