Some Zimbabweans say they were forced to vote

Zimbabweans voted Friday in a runoff presidential election with only one candidate - President Robert Mugabe - and some said they had been coerced, fearing punishment or even death unless they could produce a finger colored with red ink as evidence of having cast a ballot, ap reported.

But even so, participation at many locations was sparse, a contrast with the long lines of people who voted in the March 29 election in which, by the official count, Morgan Tsvangirai finished ahead of Mugabe, 48 percent to 43 percent.

In Kambuzuma, a Harare suburb, only five people had voted by 9 a.m., and polling officers were left to pass the time chatting.

"I don't see the logic of going to vote when there is only one candidate," said one Kambuzuma resident who withheld his name out of fear. "It's a waste of resources and time. I can't legitimize an illegitimate process."

In some other suburbs of Harare, the capital, residents said they had been rounded up Thursday night, forced to chant pro-Mugabe slogans until daybreak and then force-marched to the polls. They were told to copy the serial numbers off their ballots so it could be confirmed later that they had voted for their 84-year-old president.

"I voted for Mugabe because I didn't want to risk my life," said a man who identified himself only as Abel. He had obediently copied the serial number from his ballot in Warren Park, just outside of Harare. His finger was red.

The election Friday unfolded despite international appeals to call it off.

Tsvangirai dropped out of the race Sunday, citing violence against his followers. In a letter distributed Friday, he said: "Today is not an election. Today is a shameful humiliation, another tragic day in our nation's history."

He said he was aware of the strong-arm tactics being used to force people to vote and advised supporters to do what they must to remain safe. "God knows what is in your heart," he wrote. "Don't risk your lives."

Despite his withdrawal from the race, Tsvangirai's name remained on the ballot below that of Mugabe. Election officials said that the opposition candidate had withdrawn too late for any changes to be made.

In Mbare, another Harare suburb, vendors in the Green Market and the Mupedzanhamo Flea Market said they had not been allowed to sell their wares unless they could prove they had voted.

"One has to show his or her finger before being allowed to enter," said one vendor at the Mupedzanhamo market. "Those who did not vote will have their stalls taken away and their people chased away."

In the town of Chipinge, near the border with Mozambique, supporters from ZANU-PF, Mugabe's political party, were said to have forced people from their homes and demanded that they vote.

"Everyone is going to vote, like it or not," said a shopkeeper at Tanganda Business Center, about 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from Chipinge. "It's an order." Like others, the shopkeeper asked not to be identified by name for fear of reprisal.

With people being ordered to vote and with thugs set loose across the country to make sure that they voted only for Mugabe, many critics called the election a farce. On Friday, foreign ministers from the Group of 8 industrialized nations, meeting in Kyoto, lambasted Zimbabwe and said the group would push the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions on the southern African nation.

"We deplore the actions of the Zimbabwean authorities - systematic violence, obstruction and intimidation - which have made a free and fair presidential runoff election impossible," read a statement from the foreign ministers.

Several African states have also denounced Mugabe's decision to go ahead with the vote. African leaders are to hold a regular summit meeting of the African Union in Egypt next week, and Mugabe indicated that he planned to attend.

In remarks printed in the Friday edition of The Herald, the state-run newspaper, Mugabe seemed offended at accusations by other African leaders about the tainted nature of Zimbabwe's elections.

But rather than denying any abuse, he made the point that everything was relative.

"Some African countries have done worse things," he said, adding that when he goes to the African Union summit meeting he will dare other heads of state to deny this fact.

"I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine."

Some critics say that when the election results are announced, the tally may prove an embarrassment to Mugabe because he could win by too much.

"Mugabe's problem will be to provide Tsvangirai with a credible portion of the vote," said Mike Davies, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents Association, one of the nation's largest civic groups. "They'll have to give Tsvangirai at least 30 percent to make things look realistic."

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