Britain refuses to recognize Mugabe victory

POSTED AT 3:01 PM EST    Thursday, March 14 2002
By OLIVER MOORE Globe and Mail Update

Ballot boxes are removed for counting from a polling station in Mbare township, Harare, on Tuesday. Photo: Themba Hadebe/AP

The British government has refused to accept that Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe was legitimately elected in presidential polling last weekend.

"Zimbabweans have plainly been denied their fundamental right to choose by whom they are governed," Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament on Thursday. "They have harassed opposition candidates and supporters, manipulated the voters' roll and restricted access to polling stations. They have exploited every instrument of the state to distort the electoral process."

"We do not recognize the result nor its legitimacy," he said.

Washington has also rejected Mr. Mugabe's victory, but Canada has resisted taking a hard line. The Canadian Alliance has repeatedly urged Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to act immediately, but he has insisted on waiting for a collective Commonwealth response to be formulated, some time within the next few weeks.

Deputy Prime Minister John Manley allowed in the House of Commons Thursday that "it would be impossible to say that the election in Zimbabwe was free and fair," but reiterated the Liberal position that nothing should be done before consensus can be reached at the Commonwealth. Alliance MP Rahim Jaffer, whose family fled Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda, believes that the federal government is failing the people of Zimbabwe. "It is a shame how many more people will be dead until that two-week process is over," he said earlier this week.

Mr. Chrétien has been accused by some of ignoring abuses in Zimbabwe so as not to damage Organization of African Unity support for a new aid plan that he reportedly hopes to showcase at the G8 meeting in Kananaskis, Alta., this summer. Britain's decision comes amid mounting pressure on Mr. Mugabe. The United States has also said that it would not recognize his victory and is considering broadening sanctions against the leader of the southern African nation. The EU will discuss extending its own sanctions at an upcoming meeting in Barcelona.

A Canadian academic in Zimbabwe to keep an eye on the voting told the Calgary Herald that the election was the worst he had seen in more than 20 missions as an electoral observer. Reportedly unwilling to directly criticize Mr. Mugabe for fear that his phone was being tapped, Bill Warden said by telephone from Zimbabwe that he had seen extensive evidence of abuse, including numerous cases of torture and police abuse. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he added. "The human tragedies ... are just absolutely mind-boggling."

Also Thursday, the vote was harshly criticized by a Commonwealth observer mission. A preliminary report from the group said that the vote was held "in a climate of fear and suspicion" and did not reflect the will of the people. "Conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors," mission chief and former Nigerian military leader Abdulsalami Abubakar read from the report at a briefing. He said that government-sponsored youth groups had been used to systematically harass and intimidate opposition supporters.

Mr. Mugabe soundly beat his main challenger, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in bitterly contested presidential polling. Official results gave Mr. Mugabe victory over Mr. Tsvangirai with a lead of more than 400,000 votes.

Reports from the region suggest that MDC leaders are struggling to find their feet again after insisting to the very end that they could still win. Mr. Tsvangirai has publicly urged his followers to protest against the result but not break the law. The government, which has criminalized most forms of dissent, is taking no chances — keeping the army at high alert and setting up roadblocks throughout much of the country, particularly in opposition strongholds.

The Commonwealth report could provoke large-scale sanctions against Mr. Mugabe when recommendations are brought to the international body later this month. Complicating matters, though, separate observer missions from South Africa and Nigeria both reported Wednesday that the election seemed sufficiently fair. Australia, Nigeria and South Africa are key players in formulating the Commonwealth's ultimate strategy.

Several analysts warned that the African assessment, so sharply at odds with that of most western nations and several human-rights groups, could marginalize the continent's leaders as stubbornly willing to defend their friends, regardless of their perceived excesses.

"The electoral process is basically finished," Mr. Warden said from Zimbabwe. "The courts have been stacked. The police take directions from the government. That's another element of the tragedy — the people have nowhere to turn." He added that international condemnation is unlikely to affect Mr. Mugabe's consolidation of power. "I suppose in two weeks Zimbabwe will be forgotten by and large by the media."

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