Citing the deadly risk to voters from escalating political violence and other factors, Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai announced on Sunday that his Movement for Democratic Change will not participate in the presidential run-off election slated for Friday. The decision appeared to be broadly backed by civil society leaders and many in the electorate.
Tsvangirai said state-sponsored political violence which has claimed more than 80 lives among his supporters and government manipulation of the electoral playing field made it impossible for a credible election to be held. The opposition leader emphasized that his party could not ask Zimbabweans to cast a ballot for him when that action might cost them their lives.
He listed eight broad reasons for the decision: state sponsored violence waged by the ruling ZANU-PF party's militia; state actions intended to cripple his campaign; the "decimation" of his party's organization by arrests and violence; a partisan electoral commission he said has been taken over by ZANU-PF militants; state repression of independent media; statements by Mr. Mugabe saying he will not accept defeat; and government moves to rig the election.
Consequently, Tsvangirai said, the MDC leadership resolved not to take part in what he called a "violent, illegitimate sham of an election process."
Initial government responses were ambiguous. Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said the run-off election would go ahead in accordance with the constitution, telling the Associated Press that "the constitution does not say that if somebody drops out or decides to chicken out the run-off will not be held." However, CNN quoted Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa as saying that no run-off ballot would be held this week.Among international reactions, the White House issued a statement demanding that Harare halt election-related violence immediately, accusing the government of using "thugs" to intimidate its political opponents.
Earlier Sunday, an opposition rally in Harare was broken up by hundreds of ZANU-PF militants wielding iron bars, sticks and other weapons who attacked journalists and election observers, driving them from the grounds, as correspondent Thomas Chiripasi reported.
Among civil society reactions, National Constitutional Assembly Chairman Lovemore Madhuku welcomed the decision, saying that taking part in the run-off would have been futile and that the MDC should join civil society in demanding a new constitution as the way forward.Political analyst John Makumbe, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said President Mugabe had hoped to mend his tattered legitimacy through the ballot, so that in the high-stakes political card game the MDC "trumped" him.
But political analyst Hermann Hanekom of Cape Town, South Africa, said the MDC made a strategic blunder and in doing so set a bad precedent for the African continent.
Ordinary Zimbabweans reached by VOA expressed relief at news of the MDC boycott.A resident of Gutu, Masvingo province, who gave his name only as Shadreck, voiced hope the boycott might lead to a reduction in political violence.
Another VOA listener, Faro, said the boycott will ease the suffering of Zimbabweans even if it disappoints those who were hoping to vote Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF out of power