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Mugabe calls elections for March 29

By Lebo Nkatazo

ZIMBABWE’S opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Wednesday filed an urgent court application to compel the country’s electoral body to increase the number of polling stations, a lawyer confirmed.

“We are, among other issues, seeking an increase in the number of polling stations and the stationing of opposition members in the National Command Centre,” a lawyer for the MDC at Harare law firm Coghlan & Welsh, said.

The MDC moved after an independent election monitoring group warned that thousands of voters in Zimbabwe's cities — strongholds of the opposition — may not have time to cast ballots in the March 29 elections because too few polling stations have been provided.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said it feared a repeat of the 2002 presidential elections when tens of thousands of voters were turned away across the country after polls closed.

A list of polling stations released by the Electoral Commission, whose members are appointed by President Robert Mugabe, showed "a significant discrepancy" that favoured the ruling party in its rural strongholds, the network said.

The ZESN group said Harare has 379 polling centres for about 760,000 registered voters, leaving an average number of 2,022 voting at each station over 12 hours. If there is maximum turnout, that gives each citizen an average of 22 seconds to vote.

In one city district, it came down to nine seconds if all 4,600 registered voters showed up.

In contrast, most rural polling stations would handle only about 600 voters each, the network said.

The MDC wants at least 12 polling stations in each ward. In areas like Chitungwiza, some wards have just two polling stations. The party also wants to be informed and be present throughout the postal voting process by members of the armed forces, lawyers said.

Over four million Zimbabweans living outside the country are barred from voting in the elections. Postal voting is restricted only to serving members of the armed forces in foreign postings and embassy staff.

President Robert Mugabe has also barred election observers from western countries, accusing them of pre-determining the election as not free and fair in their pursuit of a “regime change” agenda.

The United States reacted to its exclusion by expressing “strong regret”.

The US government said in a statement: “The U.S. shares the concerns of many Zimbabweans and international observers about the pre-election environment, reports of inadequate elections preparations, evidence of irregularities associated with registration and inspection of the voters' rolls, and concerns that the violence and human rights abuses of the past year will affect the campaign and election-day voting.”

At a press conference in Harare Wednesday, SADC executive secretary Tomaz Salamao, said he was hopeful that the poll would be free and fair.

“Zimbabwe has built in us, SADC citizens, a habit of peaceful Zimbabwe, tolerant Zimbabwe, and a welcoming Zimbabwe,” Salamao said.

” As we come and observe elections in Zimbabwe, we do so with confidence that the tradition of peace encapsulated in the unquestionable political maturity and tolerance shall once again, guide Zimbabweans as they go to the polls.”

President Mugabe -- presiding over a decaying economy with 100 000 percent inflation -- faces a challenge from his former finance minister Simba Makoni, standing as an independent, and opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the polls.

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