What if they held an election and no one came? Friday's runoff election in Zimbabwe was pretty much like that. Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition candidate and front-runner, sat out the election against President Robert Mugabe, and so did most people, at least in Harare and environs. Downtown Harare was a virtual ghost town, and at polling places around the city, the voting queues were twos and threes long, sometimes as many as 10s; rumor had it that at a few polling places in strongholds of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, there were actually hundreds, but I didn't see that in a long day of cruising the streets.
I did take a brief break, to run out to the airport and change cars; my little yellow thing had probably been seen lurking around too many places by now. And I took care to change hotels, even though the very helpful front desk fellow had registered me under one of his relatives' names rather than my own. He didn't even care about the tip.
There actually wasn't that much to see. Most stores and businesses had closed up shop for the day, not because it was a holiday, but out of fear of violence. So people were certainly able to vote. The Zimbabwean government mouthpiece, The Herald, had confidently predicted a massive turnout. ZANU-PF thugs had gone door to door rounding up people for re-education sessions, teaching them how they'll be punished if they don't turn out and vote for Mugabe. Many people were warned that they'd be attacked if ZANU-PF Green Bombers, their youth militia, found that their fingers hadn't been dipped in ink (normally this is done to prevent people from voting more than once). In this case, there was an effort to use it to scare people into voting.
It clearly didn't work in most instances. The scenes Friday were in marked contrast to the March 29 presidential poll, which Tsvangirai won 48-43 percent against Mugabe (even after the government finished tampering with the results). Reasonably free and fair until the time of the vote-counting, that election took place in a carnival atmosphere. Queues were measured in hundreds of meters and even kilometers rather than twos and threes, and people waited in them happily and patiently. Fast forward to Friday; whenever there was a short queue, it was a sad and sorry-looking one, people with downcast eyes and grim expressions, and almost entirely silent as they waited their turn of shame. Even for ZANU-PF, after all, what was the point?
An example was Mrs. Mazhindu (I didn't get her first name), a very fearful-looking lady in her 70s, who was waiting to cast her vote in the town of Chitungwiza, about 25 miles south of Harare, at the Zengazi 3 polling place—like most of them, a military style tent flanked with policemen on the shoulder of a main road. She was voting, she said, for two reasons: "I don't want to revisit the experience of the wars of the 1970s," she said, referring to Mugabe's campaign pledge that his followers would wage war on the victors if he lost. And "we were given strict instructions to vote for the president and no one else." She had good reason to be nervous, because the local president of the Zimbabwe Election Commission at that polling place was recognized by my translator as an officer of the Central Intelligence Organization, Mugabe's internal security apparatus, the secret police.
That particular polling place was one of the busier ones: There were three voters inside and three outside when I got there about 1 p.m., but in the early morning, some hundreds had been lined up, according to ZANU-PF folks there. Chitungwiza is one of the relative ZANU-PF strongholds and a place where Mugabe chose to make his last big election-eve speech, in which he railed against all the African leaders lining up to take potshots at him for the abominable snow job June 27 was shaping up to be. They managed to scare up a crowd numbering thousands for that speech; not surprising, then, that they could get a few of them to vote. In fact, one of them apparently voted four times. I met him in a coffee shop, and he had four purple fingers, trying no doubt to make up for the low turnout single-handedly, as it were.
Other places were even more lightly attended. At the Queen Elizabeth School in Harare, the polling place president said, with no apparent regret, "People just aren't coming, we've had only 20 or 30 so far." And this was at 11 a.m. in a country where traditionally most people vote early. Voter Charles Mutema, an employee at the ministry of justice, didn't look happy about doing his civic duty as he dipped his finger in the telltale purple ink. "We need a president," he said, "so we have no choice."
John Makumbe, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, said he has no doubt that Mugabe's marauders will be out by Saturday, looking for people who don't have purple fingers, but even so he had no intention of supporting a sham election by voting in it. "I went along to one of the polling places just for a chuckle," he said. "I saw an old man I knew and said, 'Why are you voting?' He said he didn't want to get attacked, but he fully intended to spoil his ballot."
It wasn't an entirely grim day. My translator, who prefers to go by the pseudonym of Myamuziwra, became adept at the drive-by interview, through the open passenger-side window, which we thought might minimize our chances of running afoul of the authorities for committing criminal journalism. "Hey, did you vote?" he called to a man lounging on a corner. "No, did you?" Myamuziwra showed him his clean fingers. "Well," said the man, "I can see who you voted for."