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Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 12:37 UK

Intense fear as Zimbabwe votes

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs editor, Harare

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John Simpson's undercover report from inside the country

When the polls opened this morning, Harare was an empty city.

In the normally busy streets, old newspapers were blowing about in the early sunlight. There were scarcely any cars to be seen.

This election is being held in an atmosphere of intense fear and intimidation: worse than anything I personally have seen around the world in 40 years of reporting.

Everyone knows that if by tonight they cannot show the tell-tale indelible pink mark on their fingers to indicate that they have voted, they are open to violent retribution.

And there are various ways in which the members of the ruling Zanu-PF party who are out in force at all the polling stations can find out exactly who has voted for whom.

The ballot-paper still carries two names and photographs, those of President Robert Mugabe and of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Protest vote?

Mr Tsvangirai pulled out of the race last Monday, but it was too late to issue new ballot papers.

He and his party have left it to their supporters to decide for themselves whether to place a protest vote for him.

It is very difficult for reporters to go out on the streets to see for themselves what is happening.

As a result of today's vote Mr Mugabe's rule will continue. So will Zimbabwe's collapse.

Anyone carrying a camera is liable to be arrested, and several Zimbabwean journalists have been picked up this morning.

Scarcely any foreign broadcasting organisations have been given accreditation to cover this election.

One is al-Jazeera, which has a bureau here.

Another is the South African Broadcasting Corporation, though its team was only given permission to come last night - after the election campaign, if that is what is was, had finished.

Harare itself is the main centre of opposition to Robert Mugabe.

Here, people seem to have a certain feeling of safety in numbers.

One man who voted early said he had put his cross against Morgan Tsvangirai's name.

Everyone he spoke to in the queue outside was planning to do the same, he said.

But away from the capital, the voting seems to be slow and unenthusiastic.

According to someone in the town of Karoi, north-west of Harare, the turnout is very low and several people have spoken of spoiling their ballots.

In one ward in Bulawayo, only 50 votes were reported to have been cast by 1100.

Humiliation

During the first round of the presidential election on 29 March, when there was less intimidation, long queues had formed outside the polling booths by the time they opened.

Some people had slept outside them from 0200 or 0300 in the morning.

But at that stage people thought they had a real chance of voting Mr Mugabe out of power.

Man watches the queues of voters in Harare
People will not feel safe moving about with an unmarked finger
Zimbabwean citizen

When the result eventually came out, it showed that he had been forced humiliatingly into second place, managing to get only 43% of the vote compared with Mr Tsvangirai's 50%.

The MDC maintained that Mr Tsvangirai had in fact received more votes than that, and had won the election outright.

This humiliation explains a great deal of what has followed.

It was then that the campaign of savage intimidation began.

Thousands of people who had supported or voted for Mr Tsvangirai were forced out of their homes, and hundreds were beaten or burned. Many were killed.

Ever since, Zanu-PF gangs have gone through rural villages and towns and cities alike, threatening and attacking MDC supporters.

Their aim, they say, is to ensure that Mr Mugabe is re-elected with 100% of the vote.

Any such overwhelming result would be regarded with a certain derision in the outside world.

In spite of the efforts to stop international news organisations coming here to report, the degree of violence and intimidation is familiar news around the world.

Hyper-inflation

Yet Mr Mugabe will not care.

Sources inside the Zanu-PF leadership say that after the initial shock of the March election, he wanted to step down but was prevented by leading figures around him who had blood on their hands, especially from the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

Nowadays, he boasts of Zimbabwe's isolation in the world, and maintains that it is a sign of the country's true independence.

As a result, the economy here is now in free-fall.

When I arrived in Harare on Monday, the Zimbabwean dollar had fallen to 9 billion to the US dollar. On Tuesday it was 12 billion, and on Wednesday 15 billion.

Inflation is said to be 165,000%.

One member of my team bought some apples at a supermarket. In between taking them off the shelves and walking over to the check-out desk, he was told apologetically that the price had doubled.

Robert Mugabe blames all this on the western world and its sanctions.

Some people clearly believe him.

Others feel their country is collapsing because of his disastrous management of its affairs.

As a result of today's vote Mr Mugabe's rule will continue.

So will Zimbabwe's collapse.



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