- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

JOHANNESBURG — Diplomats describe a festival atmosphere in Zimbabwe as large crowds turn out for rallies by both government and opposition parties ahead of parliamentary elections on March 31.

While President Robert Mugabe has never had a problem campaigning, outside observers are surprised to see how effectively opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been able to muster supporters around the country.

“It’s like a festival,” said a Western diplomat based in Harare, Zimbabwe. “Government strongholds where, in the past, people have been afraid of stepping up to hear the opposition are turning out record crowds.”

The human rights group Amnesty International said there have been “significantly fewer reports of politically motivated violence” than during past elections, but warned that threats and intimidation against opposition supporters would make it hard for the vote to be judged as “free and fair.”

Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) narrowly won the 2000 election, taking just 62 of the 120 elected seats in parliament — the first time the party has been challenged since it took power in 1980.

Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which won 57 seats, accused the government of using torture, intimidation and vote rigging to win the balloting and the courts later nullified eight of the ZANU-PF seats, though the government refused to rerun the vote in those electorates.

In 2000, MDC rallies were frequently overrun by ruling-party youths or broken up by police. But this time, most meetings have gone ahead, though several have been delayed or moved when police refused to grant permission for the gatherings.

Under Zimbabwe’s notorious Public Order and Security Act (POSA), it is illegal for two or more persons to discuss politics in a public place without police permission.

The MDC has also complained that the ruling party is using government vehicles to ferry people to its rallies and that soldiers have been forcing voters to assemble whenever the 81-year-old Mr. Mugabe delivers a speech.

Radio, television and all daily newspapers are controlled by the state and give little space to the MDC.

The only independent radio station broadcasts by shortwave from London.

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