Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he will return to his homeland – despite threats to his life – to take part in a presidential run-off against President Robert Mugabe that could defeat the long-time leader.
Mr Tsvangirai, addressing reporters in the South African capital, said his supporters would feel “betrayed” if he did not face Zimbabwe’s ruler of 28 years in the run-off.
“A run-off election could finally knock out the dictator for good,” he said. “I am ready and the people are ready for the final round.”
Mr Tsvangirai said he would return to Zimbabwe to begin a “victory tour” shortly. No date has been set but aides said Mr Tsvangirai would return in the next two days.
Mr Tsvangirai maintains he won the first round outright and that official figures showing a second round was necessary were fraudulent.
Opposition officials and independent human rights activists have accused Mr Mugabe of orchestrating violence against the opposition since the first round on March 29. The violence, and the need to try to rally support, have kept Mr Tsvangirai and other top opposition figures out of Zimbabwe since the first round.
Mr Tsvangirai left soon after the news conference for a meeting in Luanda with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, which heads the Southern African Development Community election observer mission.
Observers inside and outside Zimbabwe have questioned whether a second round could be free and fair, with the opposition unable to campaign freely because of attacks and threats. Mr Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF, meanwhile, has already launched its run-off campaign.
Tapiwa Mudiwa, a 26-year-old supporter of Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, was sceptical Saturday.
“How are we going to campaign in the run-off as MDC supporters?” Mr Mudiwa said in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. “We can’t wear MDC T-shirts. We fear we can’t even go for rallies. Cars are being burned.”
In Pretoria, South Africa, Mr Tsvangirai acknowledged the risks and said another election “may bring more violence.” But consultations with a wide range of Zimbabweans had convinced him they wanted him to run.
“They believe that we as a nation are brave enough, we are strong enough and we are angry enough to fight an election once again,” he said. “We believe our people would feel betrayed if we shied away from the final knock out.”
No run-off date has been set. Mr Tsvangirai said it should be held within 21 days of the May 2 announcement of presidential results, but Zimbabwean government officials have said the electoral commission has up to a year to hold the vote.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said 22 people have died and 900 have been tortured in post-election violence, while 40,000 farm workers have been displaced in an effort to prevent them from voting in the run-off.
Mr Tsvangirai said the violence, intended to “decimate” his party’s election machinery, has had “some effect” but has not disabled it. “We are going to ensure that we make the necessary preparations to overcome those obstacles,” he said.
He urged the Southern African Development Community to ensure the run-off was held free of violence and monitored by regional peacekeepers, with unfettered access for international observers and journalists, many of whom were barred during the first round. He also said a new electoral commission should be established for the vote. These are “the optimum conditions” under which the run-off should be held, he said.
“But we have stated that we are going to run,” Mr Tsvangirai said at the news conference, which also was attended by other top officials of his party.
He acknowledged some in Zimbabwe may have felt he had abandoned them. There have been persistent rumours he had gone into exile, although he has maintained he was travelling only to rally international support for democracy in Zimbabwe and always planned to return.
Fisher Murambatsvina, a 28-year-old MDC activist, said it was risky for Mr Tsvangirai to return.
Mr Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader, has survived three assassination attempts, including a 1997 attempt by unidentified assailants to throw him from a 10th-floor window. Last year, he was taken to hospital after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally, and images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolise the challenge dissenters face in his homeland.
“They beat him up before, and this may happen again, just to break him down,” Mr Murambatsvina said in Harare. “It’s risky for Morgan Tsvangirai to come back. The army is in charge. Right now I don’t think he will be safe, if he is coming to start his campaign.”
Mr Mugabe, 84, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, and once was hailed for promoting racial reconciliation and bringing education and health care to the black majority. But in recent years he has been accused of holding onto power through elections that independent observers say were marred by fraud, intimidation and rigging, and of overseeing his country’s economic collapse.
“Mugabe was once my hero, too,” Mr Tsvangirai said. “It is very, very sad for me to call Mugabe a former liberator. It is sad for me to say that he has turned his back on both his people and his continent.”