HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s July 31 elections pit the determination of Robert Mugabe to extend his 33 year rule of the southern African country against the challenge from former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai. It is the 11th time Zimbabweans have voted in national elections since the country became independent in 1980.
__President Robert Mugabe, 89, former liberation leader in power since independence from Britain in 1980 is running for another five-year term. He freed his country from white minority rule and took over a prosperous nation that was the envy of Africa before a catastrophic economic meltdown began in 1997, triggered at first by a corruption scandal and then the seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms.
__Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 61, labor activist turned politician, the first real challenger to Mugabe and this is the third time he has run for president since 2002. He narrowly beat Mugabe in the last elections in 2008 but boycotted a presidential run-off vote to protest widespread violence against his Movement for Democratic Change party.
__Welshman Ncube, head of a breakaway faction of Tsvangirai’s party, his small group is likely to draw votes from Tsvangirai in the western Matabeleland provinces.
__Dumiso Dabengwa, former Soviet-trained guerrilla leader nicknamed the “Black Russian,” once a Mugabe ally. Dabengwa is also expected to take votes away from Tsvangirai in the Matabeleland provinces.
__A fifth contender, Kisinoti Munodei Mukwazhe, of the minor Zimbabwe Development Party, withdrew from the race.
__Voting for 6.4 million registered electors opens at 7 a.m. on July 31 for a straight 12 hours but may be extended to a second day.
__Voters will cast ballots for the presidency, 210 parliament seats and 1,200 rural and urban council districts across the southern African country of 12.9 million people. Zimbabwe is slightly larger than Germany or the U.S. state of Montana.
__Mugabe’s ailing health and his ability at 89 to maintain his authoritarian rule for another five year term after 33 years in office. Rival candidates in the nation’s coalition say he frequently falls asleep in ministers’ cabinet meetings.
__Military and police commanders, mostly guerrilla leaders who swept Mugabe to power in 1980, have refused to salute Tsvangirai, who is prime minister but did not participate in the war that ended white-minority rule. Tsvangirai alleges they and the security and intelligence services are the power behind Mugabe and continue to resist yielding control.
__Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party vows to press on with a sweeping, 13-year-long black empowerment program it says can create 2.2 million new jobs by taking over remaining foreign businesses and revitalizing often violently seized farmland, much of which still lies idle.
__The former opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Tsvangirai says it will rely on creating a local and foreign investor-friendly environment to rebuild the troubled economy, create jobs, restore collapsed health and education services and bring a return to the rule of law after a decade of political violence and economic turmoil.
__Despite little political violence this time around, human rights groups say free and fair elections are not possible because of widespread discrepancies in the voters roll, unfair access to the media, and partisan activities of the state army and police. Mugabe’s rivals accuse him and his loyalists of working to repeat rigging and manipulation seen in past disputed polls.