Violence, mischief to mar polls

Widespread intimidation in the rural areas and government mischief could scupper a free and fair general election in March, Zimbabwe's opposition leaders and democratic activists warned this week.

The government has failed to release the voters rolls on time and has concealed details of redrawn voter-district maps, making it difficult for opposition parties to register their candidates in the nomination court that sat last Friday.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, have called on the international community to send large numbers of election monitors to oversee the process.

But government has insisted that only observers from friendly countries would be allowed to observe the poll.

”It is difficult, I have to say, to see how the elections will be free and fair given the extent of the violence being perpetrated in the countryside and the fact that no one has had a chance to see the voter rolls,” said a Western diplomat based in Harare, the capital.

Violence has gripped Zimbabwe since last year, when the State unleashed a crackdown on opposition and democratic activists. The intimidation quickly spread beyond the towns into the rural areas.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum said in a report last week that the 2008 election has already been tainted by the violence that was attendant on the year 2007.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project, presenting the findings of its Violations Early Warning System (Views Project) in Harare weekend, predicted that the March 29 poll were likely to be the most violent in the history of the country.

“The majority of perpetrators are from the ruling Zanu (PF) party,” said Jestina Mukoko, national director of the Zimbabwe Peace project. “We have a database with names of some of the most prominent of them such as Biggie Chitoro of Mberengwa,”

The opposition movement claimed this week that about 87 of its candidates from rural districts and seven from urban areas have been threatened.

“The question now is whether people will have enough courage to rise above the violence and vote as they want,” said Prof Welshman Ncube, secretary general fpr the MDC (Mutambara). “They might be disgusted with the violence and vote for change, or they might say it is not worth the risk and stay away.”

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