THATCHED homes and bushes flash by, lit only by a glorious full moon as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) campaign team speeds southeast in the dead of night. Pamphlets spew out behind the
truck and flutter wildly on the barren lands of Nyanyadzi on the Mutare-Masvingo highway in Manicaland.
There are more than 30 000 fliers promoting the opposition MDC in the truck. The passengers are on the legislative election campaign trail for an opposition party harassed by President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF government so much that it is using the cover of night to strew pamphlets in a “whispering campaign” to reach voters with its message.
A number of MDC rallies have been prohibited by the police, and many that have been held have been disrupted by Zanu PF supporters who have for months also been campaigning at night — manning roadblocks or roaming from door to door harassing people who do not have party cards in the rural areas.
Manicaland is an MDC stronghold, but there is still reason to fear intimidation. The men tossing pamphlets are nervous.
“If we come across another vehicle, duck so you can’t be seen,” says one.
Surveys forecast that the ruling Zanu PF will win at most 30% of the popular vote in the area. Faced with loss of support and the collapse of a patronage system that has richly rewarded party loyalty with jobs, money and land, Zanu PF is resorting to desperate measures.
Ruling party officials in the province are reported to have told villagers to line up behind their headmen at the poll “so that it would be known how they voted”.
All sorts of tricks are being conjured to make up for the potential shortfall in votes — from the selective registration of voters to reducing the number of polling stations in urban areas where the MDC has support while increasing those in rural parts.
While many Zimbabweans fear electoral manipulation may enable Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF to squeak to victory, in Manicaland people are confident that Zanu PF stands no chance.
In some areas such as Nyanyadzi, Zanu PF has run out of membership cards due to soaring demand from people who want the protection they bring, but nobody is fooled.
“I managed to get one,” said an adolescent villager who only identified himself as Kuziva. “But even the guy selling them supports the MDC.”
Tsvangirai descended on the constituency last weekend hardly three days after Mugabe had exited the area. The contrast was striking.
Mugabe railed before a small, timid crowd about land injustices, racial hatred and past victories when he addressed his supporters in Chipinge. In Nyanyadzi, Tsvangirai spoke to a cheering throng about prosperity, food, jobs, cultural diversity and a violence-free future.
“The whites want us to be slaves,” Mugabe thundered before 4 000 people in arid Chipinge where he admitted for the first time that there was a food crisis. Three days later Tsvangirai, addressing a larger crowd, promised “a new Zimbabwe, a new beginning”.
With political violence against opposition supporters continuing, sometimes with the alleged connivance of the police, -Mugabe has drawn a storm of criticism from the international community. He has responded in a characteristically militant fashion, defying all attempts to censure him.
Although his controversial land reform policies may have some support in rural areas, his rally suggested that his support base in rural Chipinge has all but collapsed. Scores of police and soldiers lined a grassy clearing in Chipinge where he sat alongside his party stalwarts.
Mugabe recalled at length the struggle against Ian Smith’s white racist regime and his 11-year stint in jail. Then he concentrated on now-familiar denunciations of Tony Blair, whom he accuses of harbouring “neo-colonial” aspirations.
“What is their business here?” he asked. “How can the prime minister of Britain behave like a street kid?” The opposition MDC comprised British “stooges” and “a party of murderers” guilty of abductions and killings, he claimed. The crowd cheered on cue but was otherwise silent.
In contrast a deafening cacophony of whistles, shouts and open-handed salutes — the MDC slogan — characterised Tsvangirai’s rally. Many of the 12 000-strong crowd wore red “No to violence” stickers on their foreheads. Size was not the only difference.
While the front rows of Mugabe’s rally were lined with middle-aged women wearing dresses bearing the president’s potrait, the Tsvangirai rally was dominated by young people who pushed towards the front to get a better view of their leader.
One speech was interrupted by an old tree branch that crashed, bringing down several people with it. Tsvangirai urged voters to back the wife of jailed white lawmaker Roy Bennett, who is running in the parliamentary polls on behalf of her husband, after he was imprisoned for shoving the Justice minister during a heated parliamentary debate.
“On the 31st of March, the people of Chimanimani shall speak with one voice, the people of Zimbabwe shall speak . . . Mugabe must go,” Tsvangirai said. “Chimanimani will never be a Zanu PF constituency,” he told a cheering crowd.
Tsvangirai, accused by Mugabe of being a puppet of former British colonial rulers, drummed up support for Heather Bennett saying her husband has been “incarcerated on trumped-up charges, but we are with him forever”.
Roy Bennett won his case in the electoral court last week to have polling in Chimanimani deferred by a month to allow him to file nomination papers and run himself.
Tsvangirai – said he was finishing the “process of change” started five years ago, when the MDC came from nowhere to win a near-majority of seats in the 2000 parliamentary election. Land reform was necessary but not the most important issue, he said. The first priority was food and job creation.
Mugabe, on the other hand, admitted there was no food. Mugabe was confronted in Chipinge by the undeniable fact that the province had run out of grain earlier this month. “We are aware that many people have nothing in their fields,” he said. “The government will not let people die of hunger. At the moment the GMB is saying it has enough stocks to last the nation over the next three months.”
Tsvangirai said his party had “plans in place” to secure enough maize to feed the country for a year. And whereas Mugabe accused white businesses of deliberately closing down to “force blacks onto the streets and turn them against their government”, Tsvangirai spoke of the urgent need to attract foreign investors.
Mugabe has dubbed the poll an anti-Blair election. For Mugabe, his party will defeat the MDC and its “British masters”. For Tsvangirai, it will be the foundation for “a new Zimbabwe, a new beginning”. An opinion poll published 11 days ago showed the MDC in the lead, but in a sign of growing fears nearly 60 % of those who participated in the survey refused to say how they would vote.