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Zimbabwe voters look for change

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POLL FERVOUR: Supporters of Zimbabwean presidential candidate and former Finance Minister Simba Makoni at an election rally in Harare on Wednesday.
POLL FERVOUR: Supporters of Zimbabwean presidential candidate and former Finance Minister Simba Makoni at an election rally in Harare on Wednesday.

MHANGURA (Zimbabwe): Poverty is written on the gaunt faces of Joe Rushwaya and his friends who sit on the steps of an empty store, too listless even to beg. Mhangura was once a prosperous mining and farming centre of 3,000 persons, 190 km northwest of Harare. As Saturday’s presidential election neared,

Mr. Rushwaya was clear about who he held responsible for the plight of his hometown and his country.

“The country is a disaster. It’s time for the old man to go. Everyone wants change,” he said, adding he no longer cared who was listening.

In the past, ordinary Zimbabweans were reluctant to speak openly out of fear of arrest under laws making it an offence to insult President Robert Mugabe.

Unlike during past campaigns in this town considered a Mugabe stronghold, no one this year has bothered to tear down the posters of rival political groups and there has been far less intimidation by ruling party militants, said Mr. Rushwaya, a former farmhand.

Strong challenge

Mr. Rushwaya did not say for whom he would vote, but the field this year includes what many see as the strongest challenge yet to Mr. Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980.

Mr. Mugabe faces both opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (55), and former Finance Minister Simba Makoni (57). Mr. Makoni campaigned in Mhangura over the weekend, and while none of the others has yet, their supporters have been busy, papering the town’s single street of drab, dilapidated commercial buildings with posters.

The Mhangura copper mine shut down a decade ago during a slump in world copper prices.

At least 40 white farmers were driven off the surrounding land counted as among the nation’s most fertile during the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms ordered by Mr. Mugabe in 2000.

Disruptions in the agriculture-based economy spurred an economic meltdown that has left Zimbabwe with the fastest shrinking economy outside a war zone and by far the world’s highest official inflation of 100,500 per cent.

The former regional breadbasket has been forced to import 800,000 tonnes of the staple corn, about half the nation’s needs, and a third of the population receive food aid.

Over the weekend in Mhangura, a few townspeople with money bid for bread from a black market trader who accepted $15 million (Zimbabwe) — double the government’s fixed price for a small loaf.

Ruth Gava, a cashier at a nearby general store with mostly empty shelves, said a single bottle of scarce cooking oil cost more than her monthly earnings of $300 million (U.S. $8). — AP

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