I couldn't help but notice that nearly every minibus in Zimbabwe's capital has a poster of Robert Mugabe, often bordered in red, with the candidate dressed in bright red from head to foot. I asked around and there's a very simple reason for this. These privately owned conveyances, which carry most people to and from work, can rarely find fuel at official prices and so must normally revert to the black market, at some U.S. $8-$10 a gallon. But if they have a Mugabe poster, they're allowed to refuel at government depots at subsidized prices of only 60,000 Zimbabwean dollars per gallon. That's essentially free, since the Zim dollar is trading at 18 billion for each U.S. dollar; it has doubled in a week's time and is going up nearly 20 percent a day, for an inflation rate in excess of 2 million percent a year—some say it may even be 20 million percent by now.
The March 29 election that Mugabe lost was already weighted heavily in his favor. He had complete control of the country's news media, electronic and print. Police often intervened when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) held rallies, and the government handed out pay raises and price cuts with abandon. And still Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai by a convincing margin—and that's if you believe the official figures; in reality, Tsvangirai probably had enough votes to have won without Friday's runoff election, which the MDC is now boycotting.
This time around, Mugabe and his supporters are taking no chances at all. The minibus dodge is one of the milder forms of election-rigging the government is indulging in. Unable to win their votes by persuasion and bribery, they're resorting to violence and intimidation, literally in some cases beating people into voting for Mugabe. Throughout the country, especially in the populous north, MDC campaign workers have been beaten or killed, and their houses, even their entire villages, burned down. Most of their MPs are in hiding. No one really knows the extent of the violence, because roads into the countryside are controlled by checkpoints manned by war veterans, Mugabe's aging shock troops, and their youth militia, known as the Green Bombers. Getting anywhere has become so dangerous that even diplomats are not trying to do so. Leading activists were killed; the MDC's secretary general, Tendai Biti, was arrested and charged with the capital crime of treason; and scores of newly elected MPs went into hiding.
The U.S. ambassador, Jim McGee, says it's clear the Mugabe regime wants to make sure they take away MDC's majority if the parliament ever convenes by arresting or chasing away enough to give Mugabe's ZANU-PF control. "What we see is that the violence has not abated since Morgan Tsvangirai has pulled out," McGee says. "They want to handicap the MDC. They have said, 'We want to decapitate it.' Imagine Morgan Tsvangirai in hiding in his own country, imagine if John McCain or Barack Obama were forced to hide in a foreign embassy."
In addition to the heavy stuff, the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission has changed the voting rules to ensure that the MDC wouldn't be able to embarrass them again. After the March 29 poll, MDC poll observers were at every polling place, and they used cell-phone cameras to record the vote tallies, which by law were posted on the outside of every polling station. Now that law has been changed and the tallies won't be posted, and the MDC's observers were limited to fewer than 1,000, far fewer than what's needed to cover 9,000 polling stations. International observers were allowed from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), but only some 400, which is again far too few.
Driving all over Harare, if you didn't know better, you'd think there were no MDC supporters, when in reality the capital is heavily pro-MDC, especially in the so-called "high-density suburbs," heavily populated housing developments. There are no MDC posters. Rallies are banned by police, and when the courts overturn the bans, Green Bombers attack the events while police stand by. In the last few days, the streets have become increasingly less crowded. Partly this is because many businesses have shut down to keep their workers out of harm's way; some fear that many will not open after the election either, with rampant inflation and artificially low price controls on many goods combining to make many businesses unprofitable.
But another major reason is fear of abduction by the gangs of ZANU-PF youths roaming the streets. "It's so pathetic," says a college student, a young woman who leaves her home at 6 a.m. to dodge ZANU patrols. "Everyone is living in fear. I know four people who we heard were killed, but everyone was afraid to go to the funeral." This took place last week in a town only 22 miles north of Harare, but as yet it's unreported. These squads round up people to take them to vigils at their campsites, which are dotted in nearly every neighborhood. There, they're kept until the wee hours, singing ZANU-PF songs and chanting slogans—and occasionally getting beaten with sticks if they lack enthusiasm. Nearly every poor person, domestic and day laborer has been to one of these "re-education" sessions, which offer very little re-education. Instead, they're harangued about how they'll be killed if they don't vote for Mugabe.
The ballot of course is supposed to be secret, but ballots are marked with serial numbers, and ZANU-PF activists are telling voters they'll be required to note down their serial number and turn it in to them afterwards so they can later check to see how they voted. Staying away from the voting places as a protest vote is not an option, either. Since voters have indelible ink put on their fingers to prevent fraud, it'll be clear if they did their civic duty or not. Some of the re-education sessions turn ugly, especially when the organizers round up an MDC party member. In an upscale neighborhood in Harare, I visited a house and was warned that one of these ZANU-PF camps was just down the street. At first, it was just an annoyance, loud music and chanting all night long. Then it was a more serious concern, as maids and gardeners began getting rounded up for the sessions. People took to leaving their houses only after carefully scouting the street. On Wednesday morning, after one session, neighbors saw the militiamen carry in one of the telltale aluminum caskets the police here use. It was so light that two men could carry it easily. It took several more to carry it back out.
How anyone with a straight face will declare this a free and fair election, especially since there's only one candidate, is difficult to imagine. Nevertheless, Ambassador McGee says he's going out on the streets Friday, to see just how bad it gets. He won't be in very good company.