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Voters led to polls in Zimbabwe 1-candidate runoff
A sign, below an old election poster of withdrawn candidate Morgan Tsvangirai points the way to a polling station in Bulawayo Friday, June, 27, 2008. Zimbabwe's one-candidate presidential runoff got off to a slow start Friday, contrasting with the sense of excitement and hope voters had brought to the first round. - photo by Associated Press
    HARARE, Zimbabwe — Widespread voter intimidation and low turnout marked Zimbabwe’s one-candidate presidential runoff Friday, further damaging the vote designed to bolster longtime President Robert Mugabe’s credibility.
    Residents said they were forced to vote, threatened by violence, arson or roving bands of government supporters searching for those without an ink-stained finger.
    Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the runoff citing a campaign of state-sponsored violence, said the results would ‘‘reflect only the fear of the people.’’
    ‘‘What is happening today is not an election. It is an exercise in mass intimidation,’’ he said at a news conference.
    Dozens of opposition supporters have been killed and thousands of people injured prior to Friday’s vote, which is expected only to deepen the nation’s political and economic crisis.
    Fear and intimidation contrasted with the excitement and hope for change that marked the first round of voting in March. Reporters and independent observers saw low turnout Friday. As polls closed at 7 p.m., officials at one Harare station said they hadn’t seen a voter for several hours.
    Paramilitary police in riot gear deployed in a central Harare park, then began patrolling the city. Militant Mugabe supporters roamed the streets, singing revolutionary songs, heckling people and asking why they were not voting.
    ‘‘I’ve got no option but to go and vote so that I can be safe,’’ explained a young woman selling tomatoes.
    A gunman in civilian clothes was seen attacking a TV news cameraman and the voter he was interviewing on a Harare street, then forcing them into a police vehicle. In addition, two Zimbabwean freelance journalists were detained by police Friday as they waited to watch Mugabe vote at a Harare polling station.
    Hundreds of journalists, mainly from Western media organizations, have been banned from covering Zimbabwe’s elections.
    World leaders roundly condemned the vote. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at a meeting in Japan, called the vote a ‘‘sham,’’ and said the United States would use its position as president of the U.N. Security Council until July 1 to drive international condemnation of Mugabe’s regime.
    ‘‘Those operating in Zimbabwe should know that there are those ... who believe that the Security Council should consider sanctions,’’ she said. ‘‘We intend to bring up the issue of Zimbabwe in the council. We will see what the council decides to do.’’
    EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said the election’s result will be ‘‘hollow and meaningless.’’
    Mugabe, who has been president since independence in 1980, is believed to want a large turnout so he can claim an overwhelmingly victory over Tsvangirai, whose name remained on the ballot because electoral officials say his withdrawal Sunday came too late.
    Election observers said Zimbabweans were being forced to the polls and were too frightened to talk.
    ‘‘Some of them are saying ’We were told to come here,’’’ Pan African Parliament spokesman Khalid A. Dahab told The Associated Press. ‘‘It’s just not normal. There’s a lot of tension.’’
    Mugabe appeared jovial as he voted Friday in Harare. When a reporter asked how the 84-year-old president was feeling, he replied ‘‘very fit, very optimistic, upbeat and hungry.’’
    Assistant Police Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena told state radio that the number of police at polling stations had been doubled to ‘‘guarantee peace and security.’’ He had no reports of violence by midmorning, but said any violence would be met with ‘‘the full force of the law.’’
    People were staying off the streets in Zimbabwe’s second main city of Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold. Rights activist Dusani Ncube said he went to 10 polling stations and found that only two people voted.
    Abel Chikomo of the independent Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project in Bulawayo, said: ‘‘There are more queues at bars than at polling stations. People know the election is a farce.’’
    But Ncube said he had received news from rural areas outside Bulawayo that people had been told to vote or their homes would be burned.
    In an e-mail voting day message, Tsvangirai said he expected voters to be threatened, to be told to record their ballot numbers and to be filmed as they voted. He advised them not to resist.
    ‘‘God knows what is in your heart. Don’t risk your lives,’’ the opposition leader wrote from the Dutch Embassy, where he has sought refuge.
    In middle-class Greendale suburb, Eunice Maboreke came out of a polling station but would not reveal her choice.
    ‘‘My vote is my secret,’’ she told a reporter.
    One resident, Livingstone Gwaze, said he voted for Mugabe.
    ‘‘Things will get better. There is darkness before light,’’ he said.
    Another man refused to give his name but held up his ink-stained finger to show he had voted. Mugabe party militants were reportedly checking for the ink stain and considering those without it to be opposition supporters.
    Officials from the South African Embassy in Harare say a group of 300 opposition supporters who had sought refuge there earlier this week have been moved to a safe location on the outskirts of Harare.
    Ronnie Mamoepa, a spokesman for South Africa’s Foreign Ministry, said Friday that the group of men, women and children have been moved to ‘‘a place of safety, where security will be provided on a 24-hour basis.’’
    Meanwhile, foreign ministers from the powerful Group of Eight — the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Russia and Canada — closed a two-day meeting in Japan with a joint statement deploring ‘‘the actions of the Zimbabwean authorities ... which have made a free and fair presidential runoff election impossible.’’
    And Zimbabwe was the topic of lengthy, closed-door discussions Friday in Egypt among foreign ministers gathered ahead of an African Union summit that begins Monday — and that Mugabe has said he will attend.
    Some AU members say the runoff shouldn’t have been held, while others, such as regional powerhouse South Africa, refuse to publicly criticize Mugabe even on that point.
    Tsvangirai was first in a field of four in the March vote, an embarrassment to Mugabe. But the official tally said he did not gain the votes necessary to avoid a runoff against Mugabe. Tsvangirai’s party and its allies also won control of parliament in March, dislodging Mugabe’s party for the first time since independence in 1980.
    Mugabe was once hailed as a post-independence leader committed to development and reconciliation. But in recent years, he has been accused of ruining the economy and holding onto power through fraud and intimidation.
    The official inflation rate was put at 165,000 percent by the government in February, but independent estimates put the real figure closer to 4 million percent.
    Since the first round of national elections, shortages of basic goods have worsened, public services have come to virtual standstill, and power and water outages have continued daily.

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