Page last updated at 17:50 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 18:50 UK

Harare cowed for one-man poll

By Farai Sevenzo

Robert Mugabe election posters in Harare carry grafitti with the opposition party's name, 27 June 2008
These ruling party posters were sprayed by opposition supporters

People in Harare and the rest of Zimbabwe have gone to the polls to choose their president for the second time in three months.

This time, only one man from one party went into the contest in robust mood, and President Robert Mugabe would brook no criticism from his opponent or the outside world about going ahead with his one-man poll.

On the ground in Harare, in the townships of Warren Park and Highfield, Hatcliffe and Chitungwiza - President Mugabe's last campaign stop - everyone woke up to what appeared to be a normal polling day.

The "pungwes", or all-night vigils to re-educate the politically miscreant, had been stopped.

Quiet crowd

The streets were quiet and large white polling tents were dotted from Churchill Avenue in the wealthy suburbs to the primary schools of the less affluent Mabvuku and Mbare.

Given the uneven playing field, we hope that as many people as possible spoil their ballots

Zimbabwean activist

The queues were there, but the crowd was largely quiet and one got the feeling that the process, having gone on for three months, had finally got to people.

So why have an election at all when there is only one candidate?

"Because it must be done," says a policeman talking to me by phone.

"We police people voted last week on Friday and now it is the turn of the public."

I ask him how that vote went.

"Well, we were filling in our postal votes in front of our commanding officers, and they would fold them for us and note the serial numbers on our ballot papers."

Forced vote?

The story of the serial numbers has done the rounds all day in Harare.

Benjamin in Highfields says people were being gathered at one out-going Zanu-PF MP's house and moved in convoy to the polls.

"They were told," says Benjamin, "to write down the serial numbers of their ballot papers and return them to the losing MP's house."

A voter shows her ink-stained finger in Harare, 27 June 2008
Red ink on the finger was proof that one had voted

So what did Benjamin do?

"I voted before the crowds and there was nothing like that, I didn't even look for my serial number," he said.

In Mabvuku, Jimi Chidhakwa claimed the heavy presence of militia youth over the last week had not ended, but on Friday, they simply knocked on every door and ensured that anyone who was on the voter's roll made their mark.

Was this a forced vote, then?

Dorothy, voting in Marondera, seems to think so.

"We are voting because given what has been happening in the last few weeks, we do not know what will happen to us if we fail to show that our fingers have been dipped in red ink and that we have voted."

What has been happening all over the country in the last few weeks has been staple food for foreign broadcasters.

Tales of horrific beatings have continued to pour out from citizens, and invariably all point a finger at the militia youths parading through the townships in their bandanas and the face of President Robert Mugabe on their T-shirts.

Euphoria gone

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change had been trying to put campaign material on national television just hours before MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out - on the grounds that there was no space for him to campaign, and that the violence being unleashed was compromising the idea of a free and fair election.

Police are transported for deployment in Harare, 27 June 2008
Security forces were deployed on the streets of the capital

In the end, Hararians did not get a glimpse of the opposition message. But the message of "total 100% empowerment" has been the ruling party's battle cry and it is everywhere you look.

Hararians have taken to hanging the ruling party colours on their rear-view mirrors, to patching their car bumpers with President Mugabe's stickers, and most of the time, to keeping their heads down.

What can the opposition strategy be?

I ask an activist what it is they are hoping to get out of this day, and if it makes sense that 300 or so of their members have been camped at the South African embassy seeking protection, while their leader keeps playing hide-and-emerge in the Dutch embassy?

"We have to be part of the process, even if we have pulled out of the race. Given the uneven playing field, we hope that as many people as possible spoil their ballots," he says.

In legal terms, Morgan Tsvangirai broke the law by not pulling out 21 days before the first election.

He seems all over the place to his followers and the men he seeks to replace in government.

The euphoria of free campaigning that Hararians saw in March is gone.

And if spoiling ballots is the opposition's only strategy, we can expect a speedy announcement of the results in days, not weeks, and a new chapter in Zimbabwe's explosive political drama.

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