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Zimbabwe: Special Election in Matabeleland Province Seen As Test of Ruling Party - 2004-05-15

A special election underway in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland province is seen as a test of strength for the ruling ZANU-PF party. People in the district of Lupane are electing a replacement for an opposition candidate, who died after his health deteriorated following his reported torture. The special election should be an easy victory for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but local observers say they are concerned about vote-rigging.

The presence of the opposition MDC in most rural areas outside of Matabeleland is hard to gauge. Most political analysts say this is either because its support has waned, or because widespread repression has forced it underground.

The opposition has lost four special elections in the last four years. All the elections were supervised by the ZANU-PF government. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told an election rally in Lupane last Wednesday that, until there is an independent electoral authority, people should expect the results of the ballot may be manipulated.

Observers point out that, despite a decreasing population in the area, 3,000 more people voted in the 2002 presidential elections than in the parliamentary elections two years before. All those votes were counted as won by the ruling ZANU-PF. Still, the opposition scored an easy victory, and it is expected to win this time, as well.

Lupane is a poor district with about one out of five people infected with the HIV virus. Hospitals have been reporting a dramatic upsurge in malaria death this year. Most of the people are unemployed, and depend for their livelihood on food aid from Western donors.

Twenty years ago, Lupane was the site of Zimbabwe's worst atrocity, perpetrated by government troops against political opposition. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which investigated the massacre, estimated between 10,000 and 20,000 people died, and an unknown number of others were forced to flee.

Police arrested dozens of youths ahead of the opposition party's rally last week, but kept a low profile during the rally, and released most of the detainees without a charge afterwards. One ZANU-PF supporter was reportedly beaten up and taken to hospital.

In the first hours of voting Saturday, the opposition reported two of its supporters were taken into police custody and allegedly tortured.