Zimbabwe Parties Make Final Push for Votes as Campaigning Ends

Zimbabwe’s political parties made a last-ditch pitch for votes on Saturday ahead of July 30 elections as a campaign distinguished by the absence of widespread violence that marred previous contests drew to a close.

A credible vote and an accepted result would serve as a foundation for the southern African nation to rebuild its battered economy and relations with the international community after two decades of misrule and political turmoil under Robert Mugabe. Both the ruling party and main opposition have pledged to create jobs, promote growth, attract foreign investment and bring an end to the corruption that characterized the Mugabe era.

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, now led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took office in November after the military took charge and Mugabe was forced to quit, held its final mass rally at the National Sports Stadium in the capital, Harare. Most urban centers are strongholds of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and the 60,000-seat venue was about half-full.

“This is a new Zimbabwe, a new era,” Mnangagwa told supporters. “Monday’s vote is the end of a long road and we need a strong push for a Zanu-PF victory.”

A supporter at the rally, Millicent Plant, 37, an unemployed Harare resident, said Zimbabweans will “forgive Zanu-PF for what went wrong. Mnangagwa has begun improving things. He’s promising us jobs.”

A few miles away, MDC supporters dressed in the party’s red T-shirts began converging on Harare’s Freedom Square, where leader Nelson Chamisa is due to speak later in the day, marking the last of more than 80 political rallies countrywide.

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More than 5.6 million people have registered to vote for a new president, lawmakers and local government representatives. Mnangagwa, 75, a former deputy president and spy chief, and Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and church pastor, are the stand-out favorites among 22 candidates contesting the presidential race.

Read more about the leading candidates

Mnangagwa has a clear edge when it comes to funding — his image adorns billboards and thousands of posters, including two giant ones affixed to the sides of Zanu-PF’s 15-floor headquarters in Harare.

Mugabe was declared the winner of every election in Zimbabwe held since white-minority rule ended in 1980. The MDC alleges the last three votes were stolen and that its supporters were subjected to murder, rape and arson by members of the security forces and ruling party militia.

That violence led to targeted sanctions against some members of Zanu-PF — sanctions that could be lifted if Zimbabwe returns to the rule of law. Free and fair elections are a “first step” toward that process, the U.S. embassy in Harare tweeted Saturday, citing Senator Jeff Flake who will monitor the vote alongside American observers.

Despite being peaceful, this year’s contest has been controversial. The MDC says the voters roll is defective, controls over ballot papers are inadequate and the electoral commission is biased in favor of the ruling party — allegations the body denies. While Chamisa threatened to prevent the election from taking place unless reforms were effected, he never followed through.

The independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, a Harare-based alliance of 34 civil-rights and religious group that’s monitoring the vote, said its audit of the voters roll didn’t identify significant anomalies.

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The MDC has said it won’t accept a fake result and that it has taken steps to prevent rigging, but it hasn’t disclosed what they are. Mnangagwa has pledged that the contest will be fair and his foreign minister, Sibusiso Moyo, has said the ruling party will abide by the constitution and accept the results.

The only significant opinion poll was conducted by research company Afrobarometer, which surveyed 2,400 adults between June 25 and July 6. Forty percent of respondents said they would vote for the ruling party, 37 percent backed a seven-party alliance led by the MDC, 3 percent supported other parties, and the balance were undecided. A runoff election will be held on Sept. 8 if no candidate wins more than half the vote.

BMI, a unit of Fitch Group, and analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit and NKC African Economics all said they expected Mnangagwa to retain office.

“The election has the potential to be the most free and fair in Zimbabwe’s history, with Mnangagwa inviting international observers to the country for the first time in just under 20 years,” BMI said in an emailed report. “In spite of the more open atmosphere surrounding this election, with opposition parties and presidential candidates able to campaign freely, there remain some notable risks to political and economic stability depending on the process and outcome of the election.”

Updates with comment from Mnangagwa in fourth paragraph.

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