JOHANNESBURG - Ten days after Zimbabwe voted and by most accounts rejected its long-serving, autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, the mood of the country grew more ominous yesterday. The opposition reported widespread attacks on its supporters, black youths drove white farmers off their, and elections officials were arrested on charges of vote tampering.
As Mugabe sought to cling to power beyond his 28th year in office, Zimbabwe's High Court began to weigh the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's demand for the immediate release of the presidential election results. They have still not been announced, but the opposition believes they will give it victory.
With international pressure building on Mugabe's government to tell his nation who won, the police, part of his apparatus of power, arrested five election officials accused of tampering with the vote to the detriment of Mugabe's tally, the state-run newspaper The Herald reported yesterday.
The opposition party has pleaded for international intervention to resolve Zimbabwe's political stalemate, and at a news conference in Harare, Tendai Biti, its secretary general, protested what he called "the deafening silence" from the African Union and a regional bloc of nations known as the Southern African Development Community, the Associated Press reported.
"I say to our brothers and sisters across the continent, don't wait for dead bodies in the streets of Harare," he said.
Officials from human rights groups and trade union alliances said the arrests of election officials appeared to be a tactic to intimidate those counting the votes before the results had even been announced, while the delay seemed devised to buy ZANU-PF, Mugabe's governing party, time to figure out how to survive its defeat and perhaps to rig the outcome.
"The fear is they're going to try to force these officials to falsify results in key constituencies where the votes might be enough to swing the national election," said Patrick Craven, a spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which has almost 2 million members. The organization joined with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions yesterday to call for the immediate release of the outcome.
Tomaz Salomao, the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community, which helped monitor the Zimbabwean elections, said in a telephone interview that he was worried about where these developments could lead.
"We need to avoid a scenario like Kenya," said Salomao, referring to the rioting and killing that engulfed that east African nation after its recent elections. Salomao said he would fly to Harare today.
The rising sense of foreboding about Zimbabwe grows out of ZANU-PF's past use of violence for political ends.
The opposition said it was happening again in rural areas where there were no witnesses but the victims themselves. Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, said yesterday that about 200 of its polling agents, campaign workers, and supporters had been arrested, beaten, or kidnapped since the election. ZANU-PF is organizing and arming youth militias, he said.
Trevor Gifford, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe, which following Mugabe's land redistribution has seen the ranks of its members still farming drop to 500 from 4,600 in 2000, said groups of as many as 200 young men, organized and paid by ZANU-PF and chanting party slogans and shouting antiwhite epithets, have invaded 60 farms and driven out their inhabitants.
"It's ethnic cleansing happening," Gifford said in a telephone interview. "We can very quickly become extinct. People are losing their homes, businesses, lives. It's really desperate."