HARARE, June 27, 2008 (AFP) – Zimbabwe voted Friday in an election which was virtually certain to end in victory for President Robert Mugabe, but dismissed by the opposition as meaningless after it boycotted the poll.
Despite state media predictions of a "massive" turnout, the number of voters queuing when polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) represented only a fraction of those seen in the first round when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai emerged as the winner.
One of the first to vote was Danger Zvembabvu, a 50-year-old veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation war, but he cut a lonely figure as he waited for election officers to open the doors of a station in central Harare.
"I have been queuing since 3:00 am but I was the only one," he said.
"This is an exercise I feel I have to be part of because I love my country."
Tsvangirai said the election, which he decided to boycott after a wave of deadly attacks against his supporters, was a source of shame.
"Today is not an election. Today is a shameful humiliation, another tragic day in our nation’s history," he wrote in a letter to supporters.
"Today’s results will be meaningless because they do not reflect the will of the people of Zimbabwe. Today’s results reflect only the fear of the people of Zimbabwe."
A raft of international and regional leaders had urged Mugabe to shelve the election, arguing that spiralling violence precluded the possibility of a free and fair ballot.
Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said his supporters should even vote for 84-year-old Mugabe if they felt threatened.
"If possible, we ask you not to vote today. But if you must vote for Mr Mugabe because of threats to your life, then do so."
A total of 5.9 million Zimbabweans will theoretically be entitled to cast their ballots, overseen by some African but no Western monitors.
The election comes some 13 weeks after an initial ballot which saw Mugabe beaten into second place with 43.2 percent against 47.9 percent for Tsvangirai.
The simultaneous March 29 presidential and legislative election also saw Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party lose control of parliament for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980.
The MDC says Mugabe has since reversed the odds in his favour through a concerted campaign of violence and intimidation, claiming more than 80 of its supporters have been killed by ZANU-PF thugs.
The violence has been particularly acute in the countryside — the ruling party’s traditional stronghold — with the MDC saying 200,000 voters had been displaced.
Tsvangirai’s name will appear on the ballot papers with the official electoral commission saying it was too late for him to withdraw.
Mugabe made clear in his final campaign rally that he wants to continue as president after ruling uninterrupted since independence. While he would be willing to talk to the opposition, negotiations would begin only after he had won a sixth term.
"We will continue to rule this country in the way we believe it should be ruled," he said Thursday.
South African President Thabo Mbeki has been leading regional efforts to forge some kind of unity government but his mediation has proved largely fruitless and Tsvangirai has urged him to step aside.
Although Mbeki has been loath to criticise Mugabe, his revered predecessor Nelson Mandela has condemned a "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight (G8) industrial powers said Friday they would not accept Zimbabwe’s government as legitimate if it "does not reflect the will" of the people.
The ministers said they deplored Zimbabwean authorities’ "systematic violence, obstruction and intimidation" after talks in Kyoto, Japan.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the vote a "sham" and said Washington would consider how to pressure Mugabe through the UN Security Council.
Viewed in the first years after independence as a post-colonial success story, Zimbabwe has seen its economy collapse since Mugabe began a controversial land reform programme at the turn of the decade which saw thousands of white-owned farms expropriated by the state.
The one-time regional breadbasket now experiences shortages of even the most basic foods while inflation — officially put at 165,000 percent but in reality many times higher still — is the highest in the world.