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Humanitarian Crisis Deepens as Zimbabwe Nears Election Verdict

Government raids on Harare offices of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, (ZESN), and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last Friday have heightened international pressure as neighboring Southern African countries await an announcement of Zimbabwe presidential election results this week. Annabel Hughes, the former executive director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust, says that Zimbabwe authorities who staged the raids may have been trying to limit the impact of local outcry from the electoral commission’s expected findings.

“All the results were photographed at the polling stations by the opposition and by various civil society groups to insure that no one could rig the results afterwards. And I think they were probably trying to get their hands on all the evidence, as well as intimidate those who were trying to support the democratic process,” she said.

Under voting procedures laid down by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) before the March 29 vote, tabulations at all Zimbabwe polling stations had to be posted for the public and accessible for being photographed by concerned voter advocates. For close to four weeks, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission (ZEC) had been expected to declare incumbent Robert Mugabe the winner of the presidential vote. But after a partial recount of several precincts, some observers are saying that the commission this week may declare neither Mugabe nor his main challenger Morgan Tsvangirai the winner, arguing that neither one received more than a 50 percent share of the vote. In a concurrent parliamentary election, however, the MDC scored a historic victory over ZANU-PF to wrest control of the legislature for the first time since independence in 1980.

As Mugabe tries to hang on to power, his government has arrested several hundred opposition activists in recent days, and the MDC singles out between eight and fifteen people it charges have been killed by ZANU-PF supporters in recent post-election violence. The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis tomorrow, and foreign powers are considering sanctions. Hughes says the violence goes beyond retribution for political protest and is designed to keep President Mugabe in power.

“I just know that there were over 200 people who they arrested and there were women and children and a lot of very badly injured people who had fled from the rural areas into Harare because they were being so badly beaten. People are looking for protection from the ZANU-PF militia,” she said.

In a runoff presidential election, it is thought that ZANU-PF supporters can secure a Mugabe victory by limiting access to voters in rural areas with violence and intimidation. Annabel Hughes says if a runoff is held, it will be to President Mugabe’s advantage.

“That may very well be the case because I’ve heard from sources on the ground that he’s actually lost in a way which is far worse than what anyone is letting on and there’s no way he’s going to hand over power in a democratic way. So he’s having to find options within all the pressure that’s on him. And there’s not just international pressure now. There’s regional pressure, primarily because of the humanitarian crisis,” Hughes noted.

Last week, US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, in a visit to the region, reinforced claims by the MDC and several international organizations that Tsvangirai had won the election. There has also been speculation that Morgan Tsvangirai will refuse to compete in a runoff because he feels he won the March poll outright. Annabel Hughes says there is only so much external pressure that can be brought against President Mugabe to give up power.

“The regional countries will certainly have an effect on Zimbabwe. America’s put pressure on Zimbabwe before and the British have as well. This is not new. But what is new is that you’re dealing with this level of brinkmanship which has never occurred before, and we’re dealing with a very, very, very serious economic and humanitarian crisis, not only because of the beatings and the torture, but also just because people cannot even find food. It is really, really serious, and the humanitarian crisis is especially serious,” she noted.