Robert Mugabe, the former dictator of Zimbabwe, backed the main opposition candidate against his own party in a surprise intervention on the eve of today’s historic general election.
Mr Mugabe, 94, said he could not vote for Zanu-PF, the party he headed for four decades until he was deposed in November, and indicated he would back the opposition MDC alliance instead.
“I cannot vote for the people who tormented me,” Mr Mugabe said, referring the the current Zanu PF leader and incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa. “I will make my choice from the other 22 candidates.” But he added: “Who is there left? I think it is just Chamisa.”
Mr Mugabe said he would accept the outcome of the election whoever won.
It was not clear if Mr Mugabe’s last-minute intervention would affect voting intentions. An apparent endorsement by the widely-hated dictator could erode some of Mr Chamisa’s credibility as an oppositionist and candidate of change.
However, he could pick up votes from traditional Zanu PF supporters dismayed at Mr Mugabe’s treatment during the soft coup that ended his rule last year.
Speaking at an impromptu press conference on the grounds of his sprawling mansion in northern Harare, Mr Mugabe, flanked by his wife Grace, said he had been illegally “sacked” in the coup and accused Mr Mnangagwa of destroying Zimbabwe’s democracy.
"I hope the choice of voting tomorrow will throw, thrust away the military government and bring us back to constitutionality,” he said. "Let tomorrow be the voice of the people to say never again shall we experience a period where the army is used to thrust one person into power.”
Mr Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 38 years until was he deposed in a largely bloodless military coup in November following a power struggle between Grace Mugabe and Mr Mnangagwa, a former vice president and intelligence chief.
Monday’s presidential election will be the first in which Mr Mugabe is not on the ballot paper since the end of white minority rule in 1980. Parliamentary and local government elections take place simultaneously.
The poll is widely seen as a two-horse race between Mr Mnangagwa of the ruling Zanu PF and Mr Chamisa of the MDC Alliance, a grouping of seven opposition parties.
Both candidates have promised radical economic and political reforms in a bid to convince voters that only they offer a break with the Mugabe years. The most recent poll by AfroBarometer, an international pollster, put Mr Chamisa on 37 percent of the vote and Mr Mnangagwa on 40 percent.
Several prominent former members of the G40, the faction inside Zanu PF that backed Mrs Mugabe in her unsuccessful power struggle with Mr Mnangagwa, have openly endorsed Mr Chamisa. Mr Chamisa, 40, said he would not reject Mr Mugabe’s indirect endorsement, but ruled out allowing Grace Mugabe a place in his cabinet. "I will accept any voter with a clear mind and a clean heart,” he said at a press conference.
"I need every support and this is not about the past. it’s about the future. I must not gaze at the past. We are going forward and it is a waste of time watching internal fights in Zanu PF.
The conduct and outcome of Monday’s election will be seen as a key test of Mr Mnangagwa’s promise to build a "New Zimbabwe" of democracy and political pluralism.
The international community has demanded a free and fair vote as a condition for allowing Zimbabwe to rejoining the Commonwealth and for the lifting of US sanctions that currently block IMF loans. Mr Mnangagwa, who orchestrated violent crackdowns against the MDC on previous elections, has promised a "non-violent, peaceful" election and international observers and journalists have been allowed into the country for the first time in years.
The number of people leaving Zimbabwe has steadily increased under Mugabe
The state-owned media and many privately owned but Zanu-controlled outlets have openly backed Mr Mnangagwa, depriving the opposition of much publicity.
Mr Chamisa has accused Zanu PF of planning to rig the vote, and has told supporters that a defeat would be proof the election was crooked.
Opposition activists have complained that a new electoral roll includes thousands of suspicious entries that could be “ghost voters” used for ballot rigging.
The EU, which partially funded the compilation of the new voters roll, which according to a review has no crucial irregularities.
Mr Mnangagwa said Mr Mugabe’s comments revealed Mr Chamisa had “forged a deal” to act as a proxy of the former dictator.
Profile | Emmerson Mnangagwa
“The choice is clear. You either vote for Mugabe under the guise of Chamisa or you vote for a New Zimbabwe under my leadership and Zanu PF,” he said in a video statement on Sunday evening.
The Zimbabwe Election Commission said it has reported Mr Chamisa to the police for holding a press conference on Sunday, which it said broke a law forbidding campaigning on the day before and election.
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