Yet voter fraud and the dictator's coterie of powerful friends may not yield the victory that challengers believe is nigh.
Zimbabweans arrived at polls as early as 4 a.m. today for a historic vote that could end the 33-year rule of what has become a dictatorship.
Early reports indicate a very high turnout even as gunshots were heard in Harare suburbs with police pushing to control a restless crowd.
Mr. Mugabe, nearing 90, has won four previous electoral contests, all bitterly disputed. He said he would step down or “surrender” if he loses the vote today.
“If you join a competition where there are only two outcomes, win or lose, you can't [claim] both,” Mugabe told foreign correspondents at an impromptu press event. “If you've lost, you must surrender. We will do so if we lose. We will do so, yes. We will obey the rules.”
The former guerrilla leader and architect of a fraught transition from the nation of Rhodesia to a majority-ruled Zimbabwe pushed for the July 31 elections despite anger from opponents that not enough electoral reform had taken place.
Accusations of vote fraud, missing voter lists, some 1 million “ghost voters” or deceased persons whose names are used to cast fraudulent ballots, the non-registration of some 2 million young urban voters, and Mugabe’s ban on expat voters whose numbers run as high as 4 million – all contribute to a growing worry among analysts that the momentum and the numbers could be manipulated by Mugabe again.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday:
On the eve of Zimbabwe’s long-awaited vote, and after decades of Mr. Mugabe’s uninterrupted rule, the question is whether the fix is already in.
Recent days have highlighted that the election is in dispute before the voting takes place.
Zimbabwe’s official electoral commission responsible for overseeing the process has not, for example, published any new voter rolls, something it is required to do, and causing opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to imply that the July 31 vote is heavily rigged.
Today Bernard Membe, the top international election observer from the Southern African Development Community, met with Mugabe and confronted him with the issue of the missing voter rolls. Mr. Membe said that Mugabe assured him that the documents will be made available to all stakeholders before voting commences on Wednesday.
Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai, who is currently prime minister, are facing off for the presidency, the top job, in an election that also includes votes for members of parliament and local officials.
Mugabe leads the Zimbabwe African Nation Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), while Tsvangirai heads the largest branch of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a party with roots in traditional labor.
Tsvangirai’s MDC party today said that Zimbabwe voting authorities will tomorrow deliberately reduce the number of voting spots and ballot locations in what he calls a “slow down in urban centers, particularly in Harare” that will mostly reduce or cut into the number of presumed Tsvangirai voters – who are disproportionately based in cities.
In a Harare press conference yesterday, Zimbabwe election authorities admitted to many problems in administering the technical side of balloting, and described the shortcomings as “a lesson for the future.”
Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders had fought to hold elections toward the end of August, saying that too many important details of transparency were not yet settled. But the nation’s high court set the vote for July 31.
Private surveys do show that Tsvangirai is tipped to win, something causing a general anticipation for a new beginning here.
But Mugabe is not throwing in the towel, and says he plans to rule over the nation’s 13 million people for five more years. One change from the previous 2008 elections, when violence broke out steadily in the run up to the vote, is a lack of violence. So far, this election season in Zimbabwe has been uncharacteristically peaceful, with only minor skirmishes on the street.
Still, in recent days, momentum seems to be shifting against Tsvangirai. Mugabe enjoys complete state media support as well as practical support of security chiefs who have, practically to a man and woman – in the Army, police, and intelligence – publicly declared their allegiance for the former guerrilla leader. Opposition candidates have been harassed, and fake voter registrations are being reported through a small but robust new set of private and social media.
US-based Africa specialist Robert Rotberg notes that despite enthusiasm and a general feeling among Tsvangirai supporters that their candidate will win after a decade of close political defeats and skirmishes against Mugabe, there are serious number problems: “An independent analysis of the national voters’ roll shows that it still contains nearly two million potential voters under 30 who are unregistered.... More than a million names on the official voting lists are for people who are dead or have left Zimbabwe.”
Hence, the statement yesterday by Tsvangirai party officials that: “We have discovered that [the election commission] wants to slow down the voting process in urban centers particularly in Harare by reducing the number of voting points on each polling station. We are told that some of the polling officers will deliberately embark on a 'go slow' just as they did during the voter registration exercise. This will definitely disenfranchise millions of voters.”
Yet on the eve of Zimbabwe’s long-awaited vote – which comes after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule by Mr. Mugabe, who led Southern Rhodesia to become an majority-ruled independent nation in 1980 – the question is whether the fix for him is already in.
Events in recent days are beginning to frame an election that is in dispute before voting even takes place.
Zimbabwe’s official electoral commission responsible for overseeing the process has not, for example, published any new voter rolls, something it is required to do, causing opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to imply that the July 31 vote is heavily rigged.
*The Monitor's correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.