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Zimbabwe strike falters amid little publicity

Image: Burned bus in Harare
Residents look at the charred shell of a bus in Harare, Tuesday, April, 15, 2008. Zimbabwean Police say the bus was torched on the first day of the strike called by Zimbabwe's main opposition party aimed at forcing the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to release the results of the Presidential election.Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A nationwide strike faltered Tuesday as riot police and soldiers took to the streets of Harare and many Zimbabweans reported to the few jobs left in the economically ravaged nation.

The fizzling protest underscored the difficulty opposition leaders have had in harnessing popular anger against President Robert Mugabe's regime and forcing the release of long delayed presidential election results.

"We have done this before and nothing has changed," said an engineer who gave his name as Mudiwa. "Speaking for myself, my family comes first. I have to feed my family. The opposition won't bring bread in my house."

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won the March 29 election outright and has accused Mugabe of withholding the results to maintain his grip on power. Independent tallies show Tsvangirai won, but not by enough to prevent a runoff.

Tsvangirai has said he would not accept a runoff. But his spokesman said Tuesday he might participate if a tally verified by both parties and regional monitors showed one was needed, and if the international community administered the new election.

"The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission clearly has no capacity to run any credible election," said George Sibotshiwe, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Government spokesman Bright Matonga said such a move would be unconstitutional and an affront to Zimbabwe. "We don't need outsiders. We can do it ourselves," Matonga said.

The High Court rejected an appeal Monday for the immediate release of the results, and opposition officials called for Zimbabweans to stay home Tuesday in a show of solidarity meant to pressure the government.

With political rallies banned, soldiers with assault rifles and police in riot gear fanned out across Harare and its suburbs Tuesday morning. The government said they were sent to prevent violence and looting.

Almost business as usual
Traffic moved through the capital as usual, and banks and stores were open. Still, commuters reported fewer privately run minibuses on the road, suggesting some transport workers honored the strike. Some shops said they were missing staff and others closed early.

Pedzai Lwindi, a Harare store owner, said four of her 12 workers did not show.

"I don't know whether it's the 'stay away' or the usual transport difficulties," she said, referring to the soaring gas prices that nearly doubled bus fares in the last month.

Past strikes have been met with resistance by impoverished workers unable to sacrifice even a day's wage in a country with surging inflation and 80 percent unemployment.

"Stay aways won't bring the results," said Gladys Mhloro, 22, a secretary. "This government is determined to keep everything under wraps. They have the army and police, what can the people do."

Many said they were not aware of the strike call, a fact the opposition blamed on the government's media monopoly. The strike had little effect in Harare's industrial districts, since many factories had already been closed by power and water outages and acute shortage of gasoline and raw materials.

Little choice but to work
Farai Chikanya, a house painter, said he had little choice but to go to work in the western township of Glen View, where police cleared makeshift barricades of rocks and wood thrown onto the streets by opposition supporters. A bus was torched nearby, he said.

"I have to finish the job I am working on. I need the money," Chikanya said.

Police manned checkpoints around Harare and visited businesses searching for activists trying to persuade colleagues to put down their tools, witnesses said.

"They have brought out the police in full force," Sibotshiwe said. "It means that they are willing to defend an illegitimate position and remain the illegitimate government."

The opposition and human rights groups also accuse ruling party militants of waging a campaign of violence to intimidate opponents before a possible second round of voting.

Government radio played songs encouraging attacks on perceived opponents, including one with the lyrics: "Give me my spear so that I can kill the many sellouts in my forefathers' country," according to the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe.

One man who did honor the strike, carpenter Celestine Chibaya, 44, said he didn't care about the loss of income, he just wanted results.

"We have tried our best. We have lost all patience," he said.