Robert Mugabe began his last-ditch fight to stay in power in Zimbabwe, sending his self-styled "war veterans" to march ominously through the capital, Harare, yesterday, silently taunting the country with the threat of a return to the violence and intimidation that has characterised previous election campaigns.
After a marathon meeting of Mr Mugabe's inner circle to discuss the biggest crisis of his 28-year rule, the ruling party endorsed him as its candidate for what is set to be an explosive run-off vote for the presidency. And in a sign of just how far "Comrade Bob" was digging in his heels, his Zanu-PF party vowed to contest the results of 16 parliamentary seats – enough to win back the majority that it had lost for the first time in Zimbabwe's history, according to official tallies from the electoral commission.
A five-hour session of party bigwigs concluded yesterday with the 84-year-old Mr Mugabe being put forward to take on his rival Morgan Tsvangirai. "We are down but not out," the party secretary, Didymus Mutasa, said afterwards. "Absolutely the candidate will be Robert Gabriel Mugabe – who else would it be other than our dear old man?"
The run-off would be held at a date to be determined by the electoral commission, Mr Mutasa said. This appeared to suggest that the second round would not be held on 19 April – the requisite three weeks after the first round of elections – heightening fears that the ruling party would use the extra time to rig the ballot.
"It's like hunting a buffalo," said one opposition official. "Even if you kill him with the first shot he keeps running at you. And if you just fatally wound him, then he will hide in the bush and wait to ambush you before he dies."
Last Saturday's vote for change was still officially being counted while the regime was vowing to fight the next round with 100 per cent of its forces. Although the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had been hoping that Mr Mugabe, a school teacher turned guerrilla fighter, would opt for the "graceful exit" being offered him in secret talks brokered by regional diplomats, opposition leaders remained confident they could defeat him.
Almost one week on from its most important elections since independence in 1980, the Mugabe regime was attempting to extract one final ounce of political capital from the liberation struggle that gave him his legitimacy. The sight of the "liberation war veterans" on the streets of Harare was like scenes from a recurring nightmare for many in this bankrupt country. These were the feared men from the bush war who helped end white minority rule, but have been reincarnated as a paid militia, deployed to terrorise political opponents or carry out land invasions. In a sign of the changing times, the 400-strong veterans' parade had its own police guard – an acknowledgement from authorities that they have lost control of the cities which voted overwhelmingly for the MDC.
Whipping up the anti-colonial rhetoric that has become Mr Mugabe's trademark and setting the tone for what is expected to be a bitter contest, The Herald newspaper, the mouthpiece of the regime, accused the MDC of being a front for white farmers keen to take their land back from poor black Zimbabweans. And the war veterans were quick to jump on this bandwagon. "It now looks like these elections were a way to open for the reinvasion of this country [by the British]," Jabulani Sibanda, the veterans' leader, told a press conference.
Mr Mugabe's decision to tear up gradual land reform eight years ago and force commercial farmers off their land is widely credited with destroying the agricultural sector on which the economy relied. Much of the prime farmland has been handed out through a vast system of patronage. The beneficiaries of this colossal corruption include Zanu-PF officials and the chiefs of the army, air force and police who have been the most hawkish in refusing to accept an MDC victory. Yesterday, this inner circle lined up behind him at the politburo to endorse him yet again.
Six days after Zimbabweans voted for their president, official results have yet to be released. After the opposition filed a lawsuit yesterday, a court is to hear the application by Zimbabwe's main opposition party this morning to force election officials to release results from the presidential election.
"It will be heard at 10 tomorrow morning," said Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC, last night. "We want an urgent release of the results, within four hours of the court order," he added.
According to independent projections and leaks from the ruling party, Mr Tsvangirai has secured a significant first-round lead over Mr Mugabe but has fallen short of the 51 per cent needed to avoid a second contest. Sources close to the commission told The Independent that all parties had agreed to a recount of the presidential poll, which would take place in a locked room in the presence of a single official from each of the candidates' parties.
The head of the African Union's observer delegation said last night there was no evidence of fraud in the election. But ominous signs of what the regime might now be planning were revealed this week in raids by the security forces on opposition offices and the arrest of two foreign nationals, who police said were working without accreditation.
Zimbabwe's 'Comical Ali'
*Zimbabwe may have discovered its own Comical Ali. Saddam Hussein's chief propagandist would, even as US-led forces were approaching Baghdad, emerge to spin the good news about the triumphs of Saddam's forces. Even after Zimbabwe's ruling party lost the parliamentary election this week, Bright Matonga, above, the former deputy information minister, has continued to insist Zanu-PF is fully in charge, and "is the future". Before being made minister in 2005, Mr Matonga ran a state-owned bus company, Zupco, but it folded. He was charged with corruption after being appointed for allegedly soliciting kickbacks in a tender to buy buses. The case did nothing to harm his political standing.