- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

From combined dispatches

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans, many desperate for an end to their economic misery, voted yesterday in the most crucial election since independence in 1980, but the opposition accused President Robert Mugabe’s government of rigging.

African observers also said they had discovered fraudulent voters rolls listing apparently non-existent people.

Voting was heavy in the early morning, in opposition strongholds like the capital Harare, and in Mr. Mugabe’s rural base, but it subsided later and polling stations closed on time at 7 p.m.

With the once-prosperous country’s economy in free fall and a two-pronged assault by veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) defector Simba Makoni, Mr. Mugabe faces the most formidable challenge of his 28-year rule.

But the opposition charged fraud and analysts believe Mr. Mugabe, 84, is likely to be declared the winner.

Results are not expected for several days from the presidential, parliamentary and local elections. If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote, the presidential election will go into a second round, when the two opposition parties would likely unite.

The local election observer group ZESN said turnout looked low and some voters were turned away in opposition strongholds.

A local journalist who asked not to be named told Reuters news agency that thousands of voters had turned out in Mr. Mugabe’s southern stronghold of Masvingo province. He said village heads appeared to have instructed them to vote for the president.

Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party said voting ink could be removed from ballots with detergent.

Combined with a bloated voter roll and the printing of 3 million extra ballot papers this ensures that there will be multiple voting said Tendai Biti, a senior MDC official.

Mr. Biti also said opposition supporters were turned away by polling officials for not being on the electoral roll and MDC voting agents were chased off from some polling stations.

A monitoring group from the Pan-African parliament said it found that more than one-third of the 24,000 registered voters in one Harare constituency appeared to come from a deserted block with a few scattered wooden sheds.

Zimbabwe has barred observers traveling from the United States and the European Union, but the State Department said 10 people from its embassy in Harare were monitoring the elections.

Monitors from the 14-nation Southern African Development Community said Friday night that they had observed a number of matters of concern, which they did not identify, the Associated Press reported.

Zimbabwe is suffering the world’s highest inflation rate at more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.

After independent monitors said 2002 elections were rigged, Western nations imposed visa bans and froze bank accounts for Mr. Mugabe and 100 of his cronies, but Mr. Mugabe has convinced many supporters that those limited sanctions are to blame for the country’s woes.

Voting was largely peaceful but police said a bomb exploded in the house of a ruling party candidate in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold. No one was hurt.

Mr. Mugabe oozed his usual confidence when he voted in Harare. We will succeed. We will conquer, he said.

Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us. The moment the people stop supporting you, then that’s the moment you should quit politics, Mr. Mugabe told reporters.

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