HARARE, Zimbabwe – Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from Zimbabwe’s presidential runoff election under the might of a vicious campaign of political violence by President Robert Mugabe, saying that “we cannot stand there and watch people being killed for the sake of power.”
Tsvangirai’s decision ends an electrifying challenge to Mugabe, who over 28 years has led his once-bountiful country into economic ruin, then unleashed an onslaught of state-sponsored torture, beatings and killings after he lost the first round of voting in March. Election officials deemed a runoff necessary because neither candidate got a majority of votes, and they set the date for Friday.
Since the first round of voting, gangs of ruling-party youths and other supporters have rampaged through rural Zimbabwe and increasingly moved into major cities, attacking anyone showing signs of opposition support, even a T-shirt or bandanna bearing the party colors, red and black.
The opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, says 86 supporters have been killed, with more than 10,000 injured and 200,000 forced to flee their homes, an account that roughly matches that given by human rights workers, who have called the onslaught the most severe political violence in two decades.
“Zimbabweans have also shown how brave and resilient they can be. They have withstood years of brutality, impoverishment and intimidation. They are dedicated to a new democratic Zimbabwe,” Tsvangirai said.
“But we in the MDC cannot ask them to cast their vote on June 27 when that vote could cost them their lives.”
The violence has drawn widespread condemnation from the United States, Europe and many African countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that Mugabe’s violent crackdown had dashed hopes that the runoff would “be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner.”
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, one of several African leaders to speak out after Mugabe threatened last week to continue ruling even if he lost the runoff, said: “Zimbabwe remains an eyesore on the African continent.”
But no leader, Zimbabwean or otherwise, has yet shown the ability to drive out the increasingly lawless Mugabe government despite the deep privation of Zimbabweans, who are enduring chronic food shortages – about a third of the population is dependent on food aid – and levels of inflation rarely seen in a country not at war.
Party officials said they knew of no active diplomatic efforts to remove Mugabe, who at 84 is among the last of a fading generation of African autocrats.
Zimbabwean election officials said they will hold the vote Friday even though Tsvangirai is no longer participating.