JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Ten days after Zimbabwe voted and by most accounts rejected its long-serving, autocratic president, the mood of the country grew more ominous yesterday. The opposition reported widespread attacks on its supporters, black youths drove white farmers off their land and elections officials were arrested on charges of vote tampering.
As President Robert G. Mugabe sought to cling to power beyond his 28th year in office, Zimbabwe's High Court began to weigh the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's demand for the immediate release of the presidential election results. They have still not been announced, but the opposition believes they will give it victory.
With international pressure building on Mugabe's government to tell his nation who won, the police, part of his apparatus of power, arrested five election officials accused of tampering with the vote to the detriment of Mugabe's tally, the state-run newspaper The Herald reported yesterday.
The opposition party has pleaded for international intervention to resolve Zimbabwe's political stalemate, and at a news conference in Harare, MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti protested what he called "the deafening silence" from the African Union and a regional bloc of nations known as the Southern African Development Community, the Associated Press reported.
"I say to our brothers and sisters across the continent, don't wait for dead bodies in the streets of Harare," he said.
Officials from human rights groups and trade union alliances said that the arrests of election officials appeared to be a tactic to intimidate those counting the votes before the results had been announced, while the delay seemed devised to buy ZANU-PF, Mugabe's governing party, time to figure out how to survive its defeat and perhaps to rig the outcome.
"The fear is they're going to try to force these officials to falsify results in key constituencies where the votes might be enough to swing the national election," said Patrick Craven, a spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which has almost 2 million members. The organization joined with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions yesterday to call for the immediate release of the outcome.
Tomaz Salomao, the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community, which helped monitor the Zimbabwean elections, said in a telephone interview that he was worried about where these developments could lead.
"We need to avoid a scenario like Kenya," said Salomao, referring to the rioting and killing that engulfed that east African nation after its recent elections. Salomao said he would fly to Harare today.
The rising sense of foreboding grows out of ZANU-PF's past use of violence for political ends. In 2000, after the defeat of a referendum that would have given Mugabe greater powers, he blamed white farmers. In the years since, he has sanctioned the seizure of thousands of their farms, often by force. He said he did so to right the injustices of the colonial era, which concentrated farmland in the hands of whites, but much of the confiscated land was doled out as patronage to ZANU-PF's governing elite.
In 2005, Mugabe's government demolished the homes of hundreds of thousands of poor people in urban neighborhoods that were strongholds of the political opposition. And last year, police rounded up dozens of opposition activists, including the MDC's current presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, beating and arresting them.
The opposition said it was happening again in rural areas where there were no witnesses but the victims themselves. Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman, said yesterday that about 200 of its polling agents, campaign workers and supporters had been arrested, beaten or kidnapped since the election. ZANU-PF is organizing and arming youth militias, he said. "People are facing serious retributive attacks," he said.
Zimbabwe's information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, denied the charges, telling the Associated Press, "They are concocting things. It is peaceful."