Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Sunday, 22 June 2008 16:43 UK

Day of drama in Harare

Zanu-PF militia, some armed with sticks, occupy venue of proposed MDC rally in Harare, June 22 08

By Farai Sevenzo

It was inevitable something dramatic would have to happen.

The electoral playing field had become so one-sided, the incidents of violence and murder against his supporters so widespread, that Morgan Tsvangirai had to do something.

On Sunday afternoon he called a press conference in his Strathaven home in Harare's central suburbs and announced that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was pulling out of the presidential run-off scheduled for Friday, 27 June.

In the week preceding this announcement, the city had become numbed by the ongoing violence and ruling party Zanu-PF's brand of aggressive campaigning.

This is not an election, this is a war, and we will not legitimise it by taking part in what is a farce
Tineyi Munetsi
MDC official

Whole constituencies comfortably won in the 29 March poll were being overrun by Zanu-PF's youth militias. Mob rule reigned even in the townships.

Those affiliated with the opposition - elected MPs, councillors, organising secretaries, activists - were being systematically targeted.

I visited houses that were stoned and ruined, burned to ashes, and the families of such officials were seen as targets too.

One youth was dragged out of his councillor relative's home in Chitungwiza, a satellite town south of Harare, and the axe used to break down their door was embedded in his skull. An opposition mayor had his young wife kidnapped and murdered.

It was against this background that Sunday promised something dramatic from the opposition.

Rally hopes dashed

Despite their Secretary General, Tendai Biti, appearing in leg irons at the high court last Friday, MDC supporters were hoping that one rally in Harare, which the authorities had granted permission for through the High Court, would go ahead.

But it was not to be.

Morgan Tsvangirai, 22 June 08
Morgan Tsvangirai said he had no option but to withdraw

The ruling party headquarters was filled with militant youth spoiling for a fight and the location for the rally, a wide open space nearby, behind what used to be the Sheraton Hotel, was filled with police officers in riot gear.

With the rally not going ahead as Mr Tsvangirai prepared to announce his decision to pull out, the militant Zanu-PF youths went on the rampage and beat people in the centre of town.

For just under an hour, tear gas fired by police drifted along Samora Machel Avenue, and passing cars were stoned. A text started doing the rounds from around 1200 GMT: "Avoid Samora Machel and Borrowdale road big riot underway police with teargas army zanu thugs stoning cars mdc uprising at rally."

Mr Tsvangirai listed many reasons for his decision. Among them the obvious fact that his campaign has been frustrated at every turn, that he has had no access to the state broadcaster, his only means to speak to the people.

The MDC says three-quarters of the country is no longer accessible to its election agents and campaigners, "war veterans" having set up bases and roadblocks which make it impossible for anyone from the opposition to move freely.

The opposition says 75 activists have been murdered since the first election on 29 March and 200,000 people displaced amid appalling levels of violence.

"Zanu-PF has no respect for SADC (Southern Africa Development Community), for the AU (African Union), for the UN, for anybody," said one party official.

'Bloody campaign'

Tineyi Munetsi, MDC organising secretary for Chitungwiza, rang me from Mr Tsvangirai's house and I asked him what he thought of the decision to pull out.

"I believe it is the right decision," he answered. "For the last week it was my task to organise polling agents for the rural constituencies, and they are all being targeted.

"There is not a single area we can campaign in, even the townships are closed. And think of how many of our people have been murdered. This is not an election, this is a war, and we will not legitimise it by taking part in what is a farce."

Mr Munetsi also alleged that the MDC had discovered plans for massive ballot-rigging.

"Look here, people are being told that after they vote they have to write down the serial numbers of their ballot papers so the fake election monitors can cross-reference them to who they voted for."

As for ordinary Hararians, a snap poll on the streets and on the phone revealed little knowledge of the opposition leader's decision to pull out of the presidential race.

"You're not serious, why did he do that?" said a woman selling fruit in the winter sun.

Stella in Highfields agrees with the decision. "We are being made into their goats and livestock, being herded here and there, forced to wear their T-shirts, asked [to chant] the Zanu-PF slogan which is 'June 27, Mugabe in office by force', and losing our relatives to their bloody campaign."

The drama of this story is far from over, and the pleas for international action and intervention may get louder, but there is little sign that the party which prides itself on its tactics of war and its own brand of persuasion will be listening.

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