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Exiled Zimbabweans Closely Follow Elections Back Home

As Zimbabweans prepare to go to the polls Saturday, pre-election activity is being closely watched by an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans living in neighboring South Africa. Although they cannot vote, these exiles have nevertheless formed dozens of civic groups to monitor the process and are being supported by South African activists. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

A leader of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum that supports Zimbabwean pro-democracy groups, Sipho Theys, told reporters in Johannesburg recently that Zimbabwe's upcoming elections will likely not be fair.

"The electoral playing field is unacceptably and undemocratically skewed to the advantage of the ruling partner," he said. "This includes issues around the biased electoral commission, the voters roll, the delimitation of [voter] constituencies, media coverage, voter education, vote buying and politicized food aid and so on."

He cites reports that security forces have prevented some opposition campaign rallies from being held. Coverage of ruling party candidates has dominated the state-controlled news media and, he says, state resources have been used for political purposes.

Zimbabwean election officials strongly deny the accusations and accuse their critics of being manipulated by foreign governments.

But the local representative of the National Constitutional Assembly that is pressing for a new constitution for Zimbabwe, Tapera Kapuya, says most exiles are not convinced.

"We are very skeptical whether these elections will represent any great change," he said. "The structure for an unfair election does exist, and it is something which needs to be dismantled."

Human rights groups say there has been less violence in Zimbabwe than in previous elections and opposition candidates have been able to campaign in previously forbidden areas. But they say the state apparatus has been used to influence voters.

Kapuya says the government has registered six million voters in a country whose total resident population is said to be less than 10 million people, including children.

"We deeply feel that the inflated figures of those who are said to have been registered create leverage for the incumbent to rig the election," he added.

He says the fact that the government has printed 9 million ballots for 6 million registered voters and hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots for a few thousand eligible expatriates is also worrisome.

And he notes that most Zimbabweans living outside the country are excluded from voting, disenfranchising up to 2 million potential voters.

Theys, of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, says nevertheless Zimbabweans should still vote on Saturday.

"While the election offers us only a little hope that change will come, in a country with a deficit of hope, at least this is something," he added.

And all appeal to Zimbabwe's security forces to responsibly discharge their duties and refrain from seeking to influence voters.