Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai pulled out of the June 27 runoff election after violence and intdimidation of his supporters spiked in Harare GALLO/GETTY]
After winning Zimbabwe's first round of presidential elections - but failing to secure an outright majority - Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is taking part in a run-off where the odds against him are distinctly steep.
Tsvangirai, who had been given more than 50 per cent of the vote by the MDC's tally but only officially won 47 per cent, does not have many options.
If he had chosen to boycott the run-off scheduled for June 27, he would have set the stage for his rival Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the president, to win re-election by default.
His supporters would also have viewed him as a coward and a let-down, say Zimbabwe's political analysts.
But contesting the run-off, perhaps the second-best option, represents major hurdles; the main one being the intimidation and violence against people who voted for him in the first round.
He personally has also been detained by police several times, and released without charge, during his election campaigning.
Tendai Biti, the MDC's secretary-general, has also been arrested and is facing charges of treason, which carry a death sentence upon conviction.
Tsvangirai's supporters have not only been attacked and beaten but they have also been murdered for opposing Mugabe, according to the MDC, who have put the death toll at 60.
Mugabe has sworn that his supporters will fight
to keep him in power [AFP]
Local election monitors say some MDC supporters have been forcibly removed from their homes, further hindering their abilities to vote; scores more have been hospitalised with severe injuries.
Tsvangirai himself has been to see supporters in hospital who have been assaulted allegedly by security operatives and supporters of Zanu-PF, the governing party headed by Mugabe.
For several weeks, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), which deployed hundreds of observers across the country in the March 29 election, has released repeated statements highlighting incidents of violence against MDC supporters and some of its observers.
But the ZESN believes it is still possible for Tsvangirai to win the run-off even though Mugabe vowed in March that the opposition would never come to power as long as he is still alive.
Mugabe has also said that the country's war veterans are ready to fight to try to prevent the MDC from coming to power.
"Going by the results of the March 29 elections, the MDC may win the run-off," Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, ZESN's national director, told Al Jazeera.
"But the current spate of politically motivated violence has resulted in the displacement of people mainly from their respective constituencies ... the MDC could lose a considerable number of votes as the second election shall be ward-based. Those displaced will not be able to cast their votes.
"With 47 per cent of the vote against Zanu-PF's 43 per cent in the March poll, the opposition attempted to dislodge Mugabe, and managed to win a majority in parliament for the first time since independence in 1980," Chipfundevava said.
It is this apparent success that the ZESN says the MDC could capitalise on to defeat Mugabe.
Political observers and analysts say Zimbabwe's deteriorating economic situation could result in a ground swell of support for the MDC.
|Economic travails could play into the hands of
the hopeful MDC opposition [AFP]
"Mugabe could go on and try every trick in the book, but the sheer number of voters [for the MDC] may be hard to beat," says Wilf Mbanga, the London-based editor of The Zimbabwean, a weekly printed in South Africa and sold in Zimbabwe.
Others say intimidation may work to the disadvantage of Mugabe.
"Intimidation could turn out to be counterproductive," Prof Tony Hawkins, who lectures at the University of Zimbabwe, told Al Jazeera.
"But chasing people from their homes will make it impossible for them to vote. If you’re chased away, you can't vote."
Mugabe's controversial land redistribution program - which began in 2000 and saw white farmers forced off their farms, some of which went to the president's cronies with no expertise to run them - has hampered food production and brought Zimbabwe to its knees.
To try to cope, the government has been printing money with planeloads of banknotes arriving in Harare, the capital, almost on a weekly basis, according to the UK's Sunday Times newspaper.
This has resulted in runaway inflation, which stood at 165,000 per cent in February; Zimbabwe has possibly the largest number of millionaires in Africa, but they can't even afford basic commodities.
The Zimbabwean dollar is almost worthless. A one million-dollar bill can only buy a few items in supermarkets - if the customer carrying it is lucky to find goods on the shelves.
Unemployment among the country's 13 million people is said to be around 80 per cent, and hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have had to seek economic refuge in neighbouring South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.
They can return home if Tsvangirai wins and sorts out the economic mess, but the former trade union leader has another major hurdle besides violence and intimidation.
Declaring a winner
Questions about the independence of the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), which is charged with declaring a winner, are being raised; it is run by Mugabe's appointees and its head, George Chiweshe, was hand-picked by the president.
With no justification, it withheld the March election results for almost a month, ignoring calls from Zimbabweans and the international community to release them. It announced presidential election results in May.
Prior to this, the ZEC had bizarrely ordered a recount of the votes, a move which left many questioning its impartiality.
Chipfunde-Vava says the ZESN will "conduct its electoral observation processes in accordance with the Zimbabwe electoral laws". But, she added, the prevailing political environment will "deter some observers".
Mugabe's government, which has barred monitors and observers from the EU and the UN since the 2002 election which it allegedly rigged, says it can only allow in observers from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
But even SADC members doubt the run-off will be free and fair; Jacob Zuma, leader of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, SADC's most powerful member, said in a recent interview that the situation in Zimbabwe was not good for a run-off.
"How do you organise a run-off in this kind of situation? That's difficult," he said.