On eve of polls embattled Mugabe braces for protests

( dpa )- With less than two days to go is what are are shaping up to be Zimbabwe's most important elections since independence in 1980, authoritarian President Robert Mugabe is bracing for large protests against an extension of his 28-year rule.

Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have said that if he and his ruling ZANU( PF) party won the synchronized presidential, parliamentary and local council elections on Saturday, "they are going to make disturbances, like in Kenya," Mugabe told state radio.

"We warn the MDC people that if they want to put a rope around their necks, that is okay. If you do it, you will see. We are not joking."

About 1,500 people were murdered in predominantly tribal violence in Kenya after supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga took to the streets to protest incumbent President Mwai Kibaki's hastily- announced, disputed December election victory.

In Zimbabwe, observers have also expressed fears of an outbreak of violence if 84-year-old Mugabe, who faces his stiffest electoral challenge yet, is suspected of rigging the result.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the largest faction of the divided MDC, has urged his supporters not to leave the polling station after casting their ballot but to stay until the end of the counting "to defend the people's vote."

Mugabe is fighting a two-pronged challenge from Tsvangirai, and Simba Makoni, Mugabe's former finance minister who stunned the ruling party by deciding to run against his former mentor.

In the event he doesn't get more than 50 per cent of the vote Mugabe would be forced into a runoff, in which case the opposition candidates are thought likely to join forces against him.

Polls are due to open on Saturday at 7 am and close 12 hours later, with counting due to take place in polling station - unlike in previous elections when ballot boxes were transported amid deep suspicion to larger centres for counting.

In another change, the results will be be announced locally and then transmitted to constituency centres for collation and broadcast nationally.

Mugabe and his party are seeking another five years in power, despite the economic dire straits in which the economy is mired. Inflation is running at over 100,000 per cent, the Zimbabwe currency is nearly worthless, cash is in short supply and millions can barely afford one meal a day.

Observers say there has been a dramatic countrywide surge in support for the opposition, particularly Tsvangirai, over the past month, noticeably in the remote, rural areas that have been loyal to Mugabe for nearly three decades.

Makoni's rallies have drawn significantly fewer people, although his candidacy, which is bolstered by support from a liberation war hero, is said to have divided the Zanu-PF vote more than the opposition vote - as had been initially feared.

Both Makoni and Tsvangirai have been able to campaign in ruling party strongholds, where stumping for votes would have been dangerous in previous polls. Ruling party rallies in opposition areas, by contrast, have been cancelled over poor turnout.

The surge in opposition support has been enabled by the absence of the wave of violent intimidation that has preceded every previous election since 2000, during which dozens of opposition supporters have been murdered and thousands assaulted, tortured and maimed.

In another first state media has allowed opposition groups to advertising in their pages but state news coverage remains heavily skewed in Mugabe's favour - 202 minutes of airtime for Mugabe versus nine for Tsvangirai in the last month.

Nevertheless, few expect the polls to be free and fair. The voters' roll is apparently stuffed with the names of thousands of dead people and the law was changed at the last minute to allow policemen into polling stations, among other irregularities.

Given the likelihood of a disputed outcome the International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned the African Union (AU) to be prepared to intervene with an offer of mediation on the formation of a transitional power-sharing government.

Such a settlement need not necessarily sideline Mugabe, the independent Brussels-based think-thank said in a pre-election report last week.

The important thing was for the region to act quickly if the elections did not produce a legitimate government, without which Zimbabwe's economic crisis would continue, it warned.

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