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Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, left, and Movement for Democratic Change leader Nelson Chamisa.

AHMED OULD MOHAMED OULD ELHADJ/Getty Images

Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader has moved within striking distance of victory in the July 30 election, but nearly half of Zimbabweans are still worried that the powerful military will not allow the opposition to win, a new survey has found.

Nelson Chamisa, who was lagging 11 percentage points behind President Emmerson Mnangagwa in an earlier poll, has closed the gap to just three points in the poll released on Friday by Afrobarometer, a leading African survey firm. But independent groups are documenting a range of government tactics, including the deployment of soldiers in rural areas, that could allow the ruling party to ensure victory in any scenario.

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The tightening election race will be a key test for Mr. Mnangagwa and his military loyalists. The former vice-president, ousted in a purge last year, returned to power in November after long-time ruler Robert Mugabe was toppled in a military coup. To win international support and financial aid for his government, he needs the election to be seen as legitimate.

So far the election campaign has been fairer than previous campaigns, with Mr. Chamisa gaining greater access to regions across the country for his rallies. European election observers have been allowed to monitor the campaign for the first time in 16 years, but there are still widespread concerns about electoral manipulation and pressure tactics that could favour the government.

A report last week by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), an independent group, found evidence that soldiers have been deployed in villages across the country. Officially, the troops are working on agricultural programs, but many villagers told ZDI that the soldiers are working to ensure Mr. Mnangagwa’s victory. The rural vote has always been key to the ruling party’s support in the past.

The Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, which is supervising the election, has been criticized for favouring the government. The election ballots, for example, have been printed with Mr. Mnangagwa at the top of the right-hand column of candidates, even though he is 15th in alphabetical order. Voting booths have been repositioned so that voters have less secrecy when they vote. Police officers have been mobilized into advance voting by postal ballot under the scrutiny of their superior officers without the presence of independent observers.

In the latest poll, about 45 per cent of Zimbabweans said they expected that incorrect voting results will be announced and the military will not respect the results. A similar number said they expect postelection violence.

The poll, conducted in late June and early July, covered a representative sample of 2,400 voting-age adults, drawn from all 10 provinces. Political scientists from South Africa and elsewhere have been involved in the agency’s polling in the past to ensure its reliability.

The survey found that 40 per cent of voters are planning to support the ruling ZANU-PF party, while 37 per cent said they would vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and about 20 per cent refused to disclose their voting intention or did not know.

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It seems likely that the undeclared voters are leaning toward the opposition, Afrobarometer said in its report on Friday. “The MDC would have to obtain about two-thirds of undeclared votes in order to secure a first-round victory in the presidential election,” the report said. “In our opinion, this prospect lies within the realm of reasonable possibility.”

But a separate polling question shows that many Zimbabweans do not expect the military-backed government to allow the ruling party to be defeated. It showed that 43 per cent of respondents expect the ruling party to win the election, compared with 34 per cent who expect the opposition to win.

The poll also shows that the ruling party still has an overwhelming 18-point lead in voter preferences in its rural strongholds. In the rural regions, especially, the ruling party is still able to intimidate voters into supporting it. “There is intimidation ongoing and political violence is on the rise,” said Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch, who has been closely monitoring the election campaign.

“For ZANU, violence is an instrument of keeping power. The machinery of violence is still intact.”

Despite this, the poll suggests that the July 30 vote will be less predictable than many observers had earlier assumed. “The numbers are very close indeed,” said David Moore, a professor at the University of Johannesburg who specializes in Zimbabwean politics. “If not a victory for the MDC alliance, this looks like a presidential runoff,” he said in a commentary on the poll on Friday. “Given the MDC momentum, the post-Mugabe ZANU-PF’s hopes of a resurrection may be dashed.”

If the government tries to mobilize the army to thwart the will of the voters, there is no guarantee that its junior officers will go along with the scheme, Mr. Moore said. If the election results are close, there could be negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition to form a unity government, he said. “Legitimacy could be maintained with carefully calculated deals.”

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