Amid Threats and Violence, Zimbabweans Prepare to Vote for President

One day before Zimbabwe's presidential elections, Stephen Bongozozo stood in line with hundreds of people Friday waiting for corn meal and pleading for help to feed his hungry family.

His country's economy has crashed. Hundreds of thousands of people are desperately short of food. And political violence is rampant across the land. But when he is asked about the election, he grows quiet.

"I can't talk too much. I don't know what might happen to me," the 36-year-old laborer said.

As Zimbabweans prepare to vote Saturday and Sunday, many are terrified to express an opinion about the most competitive elections in the nation's history.

Over the past two years, more than 150 people have been killed, thousands tortured and 70,000 made homeless by political violence mainly caused by ruling party militants, according to the Human Rights Forum, a consortium of human rights groups.

In what appeared to be a show of government force before voting began, witnesses in Harare on Friday reported unusually heavy movements of soldiers and military vehicles, including armored cars around the capital.

No information on troop movements was available from the authorities.

The few pre-election polls reveal more about voters' fears than about whether President Robert Mugabe or Morgan Tsvangirai will win.

In a market in the poor Glen Norah neighborhood of Harare, people spoke Friday of militants from Mugabe's party living in a nearby camp who invade the neighborhood every evening, drag off opposition supporters and torture them.

"The electorate is totally intimidated," said Munyaradzi Bidi, the director of Zim Rights, a local human rights group.

The election is the biggest challenge to Mugabe, the 78-year-old head of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front party, since he led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980.

Mugabe has promised a host of public works initiatives if he is re-elected and has pledged to continue his controversial program of seizing white-owned farms and giving them to landless blacks.

Campaigning under the slogan "Do not betray your heritage," Mugabe has called Tsvangirai a servant to white interests and Western powers who want to see the country fail.

At an election rally in Bindura, about 60 miles north of Harare, Mugabe mocked the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, calling it "the Members of Death Corporation."

"(It) will be buried. We will deal with their ghost," Mugabe told some 10,000 supporters.

Tsvangirai, 49, is promising to revive the economy, end corruption and promote a more orderly land reform system.

At a campaign stop Friday in an industrial area of Harare, Tsvangirai urged screaming supporters to vote despite the "intimidation on a massive scale."

"We will have the last laugh," he said. "We must ensure this victory is not stolen by Mugabe."

Human rights groups and many political analysts say the election already is too tainted to be free and fair.

The violence is rampant throughout the country, police have canceled scores of opposition rallies and Mugabe has used his presidential powers to restore controversial election laws struck down by the Supreme Court that appear to make it easier to rig the vote.

The Movement for Democratic Change had asked the Supreme Court to overturn Mugabe's decree, resolve confusion relating to voter registration and the location of polling stations and allow the polls to remain open beyond the weekend if long lines made it impossible for some people to vote.

But late Friday, the Supreme Court decided to defer a decision until after the election.

"This is an absolute travesty," said Adrian de Bourbon, lawyer for the opposition.

Late Friday, the opposition said the state was delaying the accreditation of up to 15,000 polling agents representing the Movement for Democratic Change just hours before voting was scheduled to begin.

Opposition officials also said one of its lawmakers and several of its polling agents were assaulted by uniformed troops in eastern Zimbabwe Friday.

Two weeks ago, Tsvangirai was charged with treason in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. In newspaper advertisements, the ruling party calls the election a choice between "Plots to Kill" and "Plots to Till."

At a recent Mugabe rally in the rural area of Chinhoyi, 75 miles north of Harare, laborer Godfrey Jacob said he supported the president because "he fought for the liberation struggle."

When asked about Tsvangirai, Jacob said he did not know enough to form an opinion since state-run radio and television, the only news source in rural areas, nearly ignored the opposition candidate.

Jim Zonda, a 75-year-old Mugabe supporter in Harare, said the country's economy will revive once Mugabe is re-elected.

"Starting from tomorrow, everything will be all right," he said.

But many opposition supporters in Harare, too frightened to give their names, wondered why Mugabe was only going to fix the country after the election.

"There is no order in Zimbabwe," one man yelled as he walked away from the food line.

Joseph Mahutu, an unemployed 23-year-old, said he hopes the opposition can bring real change to the country and end the violence and economic destruction.

"We are expecting something better, maybe," he said.