With tense runoff elections in Zimbabwe less than a week away, opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai (right), the standard-bearer of the Movement for Democratic Change, told a weekend news conference in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, that his party was facing a war rather than an election, "and we will not be part of that war." He withdrew from the election, although his name remains on the ballot for June 27 polls, and shortly after sought refuge in the Dutch Embassy, saying he feared for his safety. Police on Monday raided his party's headquarters and took about 60 people away.
Tsvangirai (pronounced "chan-gar-i") won the first round of the presidential election on March 29, but did not gain an outright majority against dictator Robert Mugabe. That campaign was generally peaceful, but the runoff has been overshadowed by violence and intimidation, especially in rural areas. Independent human rights groups say 85 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, most of them opposition supporters of Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe a month ago to campaign despite information his party had said it received that he was the target of a state-sponsored assassination plot. Since then, his top deputy has been arrested on treason charges-which carry the death penalty-and Tsvangirai has been repeatedly detained by police.
Zimbabweans living outside the country, along with human rights groups, are taking up the cause in Tsvangirai's public absence. At a press conference last week in Nairobi, Kenya, Gorden Moyo, executive director of one such group, called Bulawayo Agenda, blamed Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, for sparking pre-election violence: "As we speak, in every district there are structures of violence that have been put into place by ZANU-PF preparing itself to win the election at all costs."
Moyo said the military is now in charge of Zimbabwe, as Mugabe himself, at 84, has grown weaker: "We believe that the military is in charge. It is positive that we are under coup. The coup is against the opposition."
Four other members of Zimbabwe's civil society, including Silas Gweshe, a MDC politician who has experienced firsthand the government's brutality to those who oppose the current regime, joined Moyo.
Gweshe's voice shook as he told how, even though he lost the election, a military patrol bombed his house and destroyed everything he had. Now on the run because he believes he is still a target, he said, "it's terrible back home."
Both the election and world reaction to it will be historic, said Takura Zhangazha, national director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zimbabwe: "It is about people who have refused to respect the people's verdict, if things are allowed to proceed this way it will set a bad and dangerous precedence not only for Zimbabwe but for the world."
Maureen Kademaunga, an advocacy officer with Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, was in prison just two weeks ago for organizing a workshop. Now free in Nairobi, she told reporters, "To us [civil society in Zimbabwe] this election will not be free and fair and whatever the outcome of this election is, it is illegitimate." She called on African leaders and others around the world "to be brave enough to stand up and hold Mugabe accountable for the atrocities that he is committing against the people of Zimbabwe."
One way to measure the situation is the level of freedom of the press, said freelance journalist Frank Chikowore, who was imprisoned in Harare recently on what he claims are false charges. Journalists in Zimbabwe "are not politicians, journalists are people who inform the society," he told the reporters in Nairobi, and Mugabe should respect rather than muzzle their voices.
With so little time before June 27, Moyo said world opinion is crucial: "If all the friends of democracy would thicken their voices and tell Mugabe to dismantle the structures of violence in the rural areas and allow the displaced to go back so they can vote, if we have a legion of international observers coming into the deep rural areas to give confidence to the people I think we can have a semblance of sanity in our election." Ultimately, Moyo said, "We should not wait until the blood is flowing in our streets in Zimbabwe before we act."