Zimbabwe's one-candidate presidential runoff is already a footnote, with the world looking beyond Friday's electoral charade to how longtime leader Robert Mugabe can be pushed toward real democracy.
Mugabe — who at the 11th hour told a campaign rally Thursday he was willing to talk to the opposition — is expected to orchestrate a mass turnout, with anyone who tries to stay home subject to attack.
Nigeria joined the chorus of nations in Africa and the West calling for the vote to be postponed, saying Thursday it was doubtful a credible election could be held. It said an observer mission for a West Africa bloc led by a former Nigerian leader had been recalled from Zimbabwe.
The 84-year-old Mugabe has shown little interest in talks with Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, and his government had scoffed at the opposition leader's call Wednesday to work together to form a transitional authority.
'Open to discussion'
But at a campaign rally Thursday, Mugabe said: "We remain open to discussion with the MDC." Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said that did not indicate a softening toward the opposition, however, and any contacts could only take place after Friday's vote.
Mugabe also told the crowd he would be going to Egypt, where a meeting of African Union heads of state is to be held Monday — presumably to attend as a victorious re-elected president.
Tsvangirai announced Sunday he was withdrawing from Friday's vote because state-sponsored violence against his Movement for Democratic Change had made it impossible to run. He then fled to the Dutch Embassy for safety.
Speaking to the BBC World Service from inside the embassy, Tsvangirai said he expected voters would be forced to the polls on Friday.
"There will be massive frog-marching of the people to the polling stations by force," the opposition leader said. "There could be a massive turnout, not because of the will of the people but because of the role of the military and the traditional leaders to force people to these polls."
Still, he told his supporters not to resist if militants from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party or government soldiers force them to go to the polls.
"They should go. If they even vote for ZANU-PF, if they even vote for Mugabe, what does that change?" he said. "It makes no difference because the vote is a fraud."
By Thursday, an atmosphere of tension and fear had settled over the capital.
Businesses and factories closed around noon ahead of Friday's poll. Most schools had been shut since Monday, when teachers at one school called parents to pick up their children because suspected Mugabe militants had been spotted camped on vacant scrubland nearby.
"There are too many people going around. It's like we are under some sort of siege," said Chipo Chihota, standing in a food line near her daughter's closed school.
Trees and lamp posts across Harare were plastered with Mugabe election posters. A few Tsvangirai posters left over from the first round of voting on March 29 were defaced and torn, some with his eyes gouged out.
Peter Nyirenda, owner of a clothing store in eastern Harare, said his shop had been closed since Tuesday. "It's not safe," he said.
In a parking lot for buses in downtown Harare, most minivan taxis and buses were plastered with Mugabe stickers, fliers, posters and flags — put there on orders from militants, several drivers said.
Ruling party pickup trucks filled with youths wearing Mugabe campaign T-shirts and scarves traversed downtown. Some shops locked down their shutters and in a district of Asian-owned stores, extra private security guards were posted.
"There's been a general mobilization of Mugabe's people," said one businessman who gave his name only as Mukesh.
Witnesses in townships surrounding the capital said army troops and police were on patrol and militants ordered market stalls and bars to close by dusk.
In well-to-do suburbs, sports clubs and restaurants were warned to close by early evening. "We're not taking bookings tonight, and in any case all week our regulars didn't want to be out after dark. It's that tense," said one restaurant manager.
Kubatana, an independent information Web site, said Mugabe supporters were manning roadblocks on main streets and highways. Witnesses reported nine checkpoints on a 120-mile stretch of highway from the eastern city of Mutare, five manned only by militants.
Mugabe supporters were intimidating voters, warning them to turn out in large numbers to give Mugabe a landslide win, Kubatana quoted residents as saying. It said anyone without indelible ink stains from polling stations on their fingers would be seen as boycotting the vote in support of Tsvangirai's withdrawal.
Mugabe officials were also demanding voters write down the serial numbers of their ballot papers so their votes could be checked later, the Web site said. It said village elders said they would log the names of voters at polling stations to cast their ballots, and voters who didn't show up would be punished.
U.S. Ambassador James McGee said in a statement that the embassy had also received reports that Mugabe's party "will force people to vote on Friday and take action against those who refuse."
Independent monitors not cleared
The main independent local election observer group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said Thursday it was unable to field monitors because they had not been accredited. It said Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is also chief spokesman for Mugabe's party, restricted it to only 500 monitors for the runoff, but failed to clear them for accreditation.
In the first round of voting, the group deployed several thousand monitors and was the biggest independent body observing at about 9,000 polling stations.
Tsvangirai came in first in a field of four in the first round of voting, but did not get the majority needed to avoid a runoff against Mugabe. That campaign was generally peaceful, but the runoff has been overshadowed by violence and intimidation, especially in rural areas.
Independent human rights groups say 85 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, most of them opposition supporters.