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Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition, Citizens Coalition for Change, gestures while addressing delegates during a manifesto launch in Bulawayo on Aug. 8.ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images

When the opposition candidates arrived in the village of Skei, near Zimbabwe’s capital, some voters were nervous. “Get away from here,” one woman shouted, chasing them away from her home.

“You want to get my family in trouble,” she told them. “You want to get our heads cut off for supporting the opposition.”

With the Aug. 23 general election getting closer, the climate of fear among many of Zimbabwe’s voters is deepening. The ruling party, ZANU-PF, has dominated this country for 43 years – and it is using every intimidation tactic in the book to ensure another victory.

Members of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), have suffered a barrage of violence and harassment in the campaign. One of its supporters was stoned to death by assailants from the ruling party on his way to a campaign rally. Dozens of CCC rallies have been banned by police. Many of its candidates have been attacked or arrested, and a new law known as the “Patriotic Bill” will allow critics of the government to be prosecuted criminally for undermining the country.

“The authorities have weaponized the criminal justice system against the ruling party’s political opponents,” Human Rights Watch said in a report this month.

“The environment for a credible, free, and fair election has been grossly diminished,” it said. “The Zimbabwean authorities have greatly limited the space for opposition parties to campaign.”

Zimbabwe’s ‘Patriotic Bill’ has made free and fair elections impossible

Villages such as Skei will be key battlegrounds in the election. Located about 50 kilometres west of Harare, it was once filled with workers from a nearby tobacco farm. When the farm was seized in a chaotic reform program that appropriated land from white farmers, many of the workers lost their jobs and the village fell into decline.

Stories of political violence are not difficult to find here. “I was beaten for supporting the opposition,” said 46-year-old Chiripai Mikiri, who said he fled from another village further north after the attack.

He insisted that the violence will not deter him. “Nothing can stop me from voting for the opposition, even today,” he told The Globe and Mail.

Zimbabwe has a long history of election violence. Six people were killed and dozens injured after the last election, in 2018, when soldiers fired at crowds protesting the official results. An inquiry found that the military and police were responsible, but nobody was arrested or charged. In an election in 2008, more than 200 people were killed and thousands were assaulted, tortured, raped or abducted by pro-government forces.

Much of the violence was blamed on then-president Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country from 1980 until he was toppled in a military coup in 2017. But his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has tightened the ruling party’s grip on power and allowed the violence to continue.

Polls suggest the CCC would have a strong chance of winning next week’s vote if it were free and fair. But few analysts expect a fair election.

“This election reminds me of the 2008 violent election, when many opposition activists lost their limbs,” said Richard Tsvangirai, one of the CCC candidates campaigning recently in Skei.

Because of intimidation and bribery, many villagers pretend to support ZANU-PF when they secretly prefer the opposition, Mr. Tsvangirai told The Globe in an interview.

The bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s past elections has citizens bracing for what’s to come next year

“People are still traumatized by the events of 2008. This is not a free and fair election already. It shows that Mnangagwa doesn’t have support on the ground. Why would you beat up people if you have support? He is scared, and that’s why he has resorted to violence.”

Mr. Tsvangirai, 29, is the son of former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who served as Zimbabwe’s prime minister in a coalition government from 2009 to 2013. Recalling how his father was often arrested and assaulted during his political career, he said he has seen similar attacks in this election campaign.

One such attack was in the village of Mutubva last month. “At first people there were receiving us very well, but then we were ambushed by ZANU-PF supporters who attacked my campaign team, throwing stones at us,” Mr. Tsvangirai said. “They beat up my campaign team, and seven of them were injured. One woman from among my campaign team was left with a broken hand.”

Another CCC candidate, Trustwell Chikomo, was campaigning in a Harare suburb on July 20 when he was ambushed by a gang of ZANU-PF supporters armed with machetes, metal rods, sticks and rocks. They surrounded his vehicle, singing anti-opposition songs, and ripped down his campaign posters, replacing them with Mnangagwa posters.

Zimbabwe has joined the growing ranks of the world’s electoral autocracies

“They ordered everyone in the vehicle to remove our campaign regalia,” Mr. Chikomo told The Globe. “They threatened to kill everyone. They picked up stones and started stoning our vehicle, and some of them smashed our windshield with metal rods.”

When some of the attackers tried to set the vehicle on fire, Mr. Chikomo and his campaign team managed to speed off and escape.

Assailants who target opposition candidates have operated with near impunity – perhaps because the police themselves have arrested and harassed many opposition supporters. Amnesty International, in a recent report, described the situation as a systematic and brutal crackdown on human rights.

“The Zimbabwean authorities have revealed their brazen contempt for basic freedoms and shown that there is no space for dissent,” Amnesty said in the report.

“Over the past five years, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have been relentlessly suppressed.”

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