Zimbabwe Opposition Protest Appears to Falter Amid Lack of Publicity, Police Presence

A nationwide strike called by Zimbabwe's opposition to protest the withholding of election results appeared to falter Tuesday as police and soldiers fanned out across the country.

Many in the capital said they were not aware of the protest. Most of the news media are state-controlled.

Zimbabwe is still waiting for the presidential results 17 days after a vote that longtime ruler Robert Mugabe apparently lost. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, whose efforts to force the release of results have failed, called on Zimbabweans to stay home Tuesday in a low-key show of solidarity.

"Every Zimbabwean should stay at home until [the electoral commission] announces the results for the presidential poll," opposition spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo said in a statement.

Police and soldiers spread out across Harare in the early morning; the government said they were sent to prevent violence and looting.

There had been little publicity about the strike before Tuesday, and traffic moved through the capital as usual. Banks and stores were open and many of those downtown said they hadn't known a strike was called.

Some said the state's control of the media meant it was difficult for MDC to fully inform everyone.

Still, commuters reported fewer privately run minibuses on the road, suggesting that some transport workers were staying away. Some downtown restaurants said they were missing staff.

Past strike calls have been met with resistance by impoverished workers, who cannot afford to lose even one day's wages in a country with surging inflation and 80 percent unemployment.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won the March 29 election outright and has accused Mugabe of holding back the results to try to maintain his 28-year grip in power. Independent tallies show Tsvangirai won, but did not receive enough votes to prevent a runoff.

George Sibotshiwe, a spokesman for Tsvangirai, said Tuesday that the opposition would consider participating in a runoff only if a tally verified by both parties and regional monitors shows no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, and if the international community administers the election.

Government spokesman Bright Matonga said such a move would be unconstitutional and an affront to Zimbabweans.

"We don't need outsiders. We can do it ourselves," Matonga said.

On Monday, the country's High Court rejected the opposition's appeal for immediate release of the presidential results.

The High Court said it will rule Wednesday on whether Monday's decision also invalidates an opposition petition to block planned recounts of ballots of 23 parliamentary races, MDC lawyer Selby Hwacah said.

All but one of those races were won by the MDC. The opposition, which won a slim majority in the 210-member legislature for the first time in Zimbabwe's history, fears recounts will be used to rig the vote and overturn its victory.

Police have banned all political rallies, and the party described Tuesday's action as intended to be a quiet "stay away," not a raucous strike with street protests.

Residents in Harare's Glen Norah neighborhood said police dispersed crowds of commuters waiting for buses. Police also manned checkpoints surrounding the capital.

Since the vote, ruling party militants have waged a campaign of violence against opposition supporters before a possible second round of voting, the opposition and human rights groups said.

Government-controlled radio stations are playing songs that encourage violence against perceived political sellouts, a media watchdog group said.

"Give me my spear so that I can kill the many sellouts in my forefathers' country," urges one song quoted by the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said Monday it had documented at least 130 attacks on opposition or independent poll monitors. Two people have been killed and 29 hospitalized with serious injuries, director Irene Petras said.