Mugabe's rival quits runoff in Zimbabwe, citing violence
JOHANNESBURG: The leader of Zimbabwe's opposition party withdrew Sunday from a presidential runoff, just five days before it was to be held, saying he could neither participate "in this violent, illegitimate sham of an election process," nor ask his voters to risk their lives in the face of threats from forces backing President Robert Mugabe.
The opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, the standard-bearer of the Movement for Democratic Change, said at a news conference in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, that his party was facing a war rather than an election, "and we will not be part of that war."
A governing party militia blocked his supporters from attending a major rally in Harare on Sunday, the head of an election observer team said. The opposition said rowdy youths, armed with iron bars and sticks, beat up people who had come to cheer for Tsvangirai.
It was the latest incident in a tumultuous campaign season in which Tsvangirai has been repeatedly detained, his party's chief strategist jailed on treason charges that many people consider bogus, and rampant state-sponsored violence has left at least 85 opposition supporters dead and thousands injured, according to tallies by doctors treating the victims.
Tsvangirai's decision to quit the race seems intended to force Zimbabwe's neighbors to take a stand. There are growing cracks in the solidarity that African heads of state have shown for Mugabe, an 84-year-old liberation hero whose defiant anti-Western rhetoric has long struck a resonant chord in a region with a bitter colonial history.
The United States and Britain are pressing to put Zimbabwe's political crisis on the United Nations Security Council agenda on Monday, a step South Africa, the region's most powerful nation, has consistently opposed.
Gordon Johndroe, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said in an e-mail message that the United States wants the United Nations to consider taking additional steps. "Mugabe cannot be allowed to repress the Zimbabwean people forever," he said.
It remains to be seen whether southern Africa's leaders will collectively censure Mugabe or take tougher steps, such as economic sanctions, to isolate his government. They have never done so before, despite elections in 2002 and 2005 that were widely believed to have been marked by rigging and fraud, but that his regional peers declared legitimate.
Marwick Khumalo, who heads the Pan-African Parliament's observer team, which witnessed the aborted rally on Sunday, said it would be unfortunate if bodies representing African nations endorsed the current election. He said he had just returned from the Rusape District in Manicaland Province where the police chief told him six people, all from the opposition, had been killed.
"How can you have an election where people are killed and hacked to death as the sun goes down?" Khumalo asked. "How can you have an election where the leader of one party is not even allowed to conduct rallies?"
Nonetheless, Zimbabwe's information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, told The Associated Press that the runoff would go forward on Friday despite Tsvangirai's departure from the race.
"The Constitution does not say that if somebody drops out or decides to chicken out the runoff will not be held," Ndlovu said.
Tsvangirai notified the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, the regional mediator in Zimbabwe's crisis, of his withdrawal, Mbeki's spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, said, adding that Mbeki was encouraged that the candidate "is not closing the door on negotiations completely." Ratshitanga declined to comment on the legitimacy of the current election.
There may yet be more twists in this saga. Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, a Mugabe critic and the chairman of the Southern African Development Community, the bloc of 14 nations that chose Mbeki as mediator, suggested to reporters in Lusaka, Zambia, that the election should be postponed "to avert a catastrophe in the region."
And Tsvangirai kept open the possibility that he might re-enter the race in the extremely unlikely event that the United Nations or the African Union stepped in to end the violence by Wednesday, when he intends to announce his party's next steps.
Mugabe, in power for 28 years, has made it difficult for his fellow African heads of state to pretend there is anything normal about this election. He has repeatedly declared at public rallies in recent days that he would never allow Tsvangirai, whom he denounces as a pawn of Britain, the former colonial power in Zimbabwe, to become president through the ballot box, vowing that the bullet is mightier than the ballpoint pen.
"Only God, who appointed me, will remove me, not the MDC, not the British," Mugabe declared in the city of Bulawayo on Friday. "Only God will remove me!"
Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a general election on March 29 by 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the government's count. The opposition claimed it had won a majority outright and that no runoff was needed.
The Movement for Democratic Change has a history of agonizing about whether to participate in elections it presumed would be unfair, and there have long been deep divisions within the party about how to proceed. This year, Tsvangirai reluctantly entered the race, though he argued that Mbeki, the mediator, had failed to ensure conditions for a fair contest.
Tsvangirai said earlier this year that, at a minimum, the election would reveal the ugly face of Mugabe's despotic and economically disastrous reign. The opposition then vacillated about participating in the June 27 runoff, but finally decided to do so.
Opposition party leaders assumed that the ferocious violence against its supporters would abate once election observers from across Africa arrived, making it possible for them to campaign openly and mobilize their poll workers. Instead, Khumalo, the head of the team of election observers, said, "As the election was gaining momentum, so was the violence."
In a decision that will be likely to disappoint some of his supporters, especially those who have paid a terrible price for backing him, Tsvangirai apparently decided the level of violence had become intolerable.
The party also concluded that the systematic campaign to displace thousands of its poll workers had been so effective in the three vote-rich Mashonaland provinces, where Tsvangirai made strong inroads into Mugabe's support, that they would be unable to staff the polling stations on election day, leaving them open to ballot-box stuffing.
Tsvangirai, a charismatic former trade union leader who has been Mugabe's hated rival for almost a decade, charged Sunday that the president's violent, vengeful strategy had displaced 200,000 people, destroyed 20,000 homes and injured and maimed over 10,000 people in what he called "this orgy of violence."
Sunday evening, central Harare was largely peaceful, with Tsvangirai's supporters retreating home early, leaving the streets to pro-Mugabe brigades, chanting, "Win or war!"