Voters line up in Harare to cast their ballots in Friday's presidential election.
Fearful voters gathered at Zimbabwe's heavily guarded polling stations Friday for a controversial run-off election that world leaders and human rights advocates have condemned as unfair.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he fears voters will be threatened and forced to cast a ballot, even though he dropped out of the race Sunday and many of his supporters say they want to boycott it.
Rumours were flying that militants in President Robert Mugabe's ruling party would use violence and intimidation to get a massive turnout at the polls, one that would make the election seem valid and his expected victory credible. Voters talked about reports that militants would be checking people's fingers for ink stains, the tell-tale sign that they had cast their ballot, which requires being fingerprinted.
Tsvangirai, in an e-mail to supporters on Friday, told them if they felt forced to vote, they could always spoil their ballots.
"God knows what is in your heart. Don't risk your lives," the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change urged them.
Tsvangirai has been holed up in the Dutch Embassy out of fears for his safety since Sunday, when he withdrew from the election because of concerns about violence and intimidation. Mugabe is now the only candidate in the race, although Tsvangirai's name is still on the ballot because officials said they didn't have enough time to remove it.
Opposition supporters targeted
Dozens of opposition supporters have been killed and thousands injured in the weeks leading to the election, the opposition claims.
Others have been arrested, including Tendai Biti, the second in command of Tsvangirai's party. He is charged with treason and could be sentenced to death if convicted but was granted bail Thursday.
Overnight Thursday, the opposition distributed flyers across the southern African country, urging voters to boycott if possible.
"Is it necessary to vote?" said Harare resident Cephas Sango asked after reading the flyer.
He said he didn't know what he would do, since he had heard the rumours about militants checking fingertips for ink.
Marshals collect names at polls
In Harare's high-density Mbare suburb, lines formed at polling stations as voters arrived in groups, led by apparent ruling-party marshals carrying books filled with names. In one side street, names were being called and ticked off as about 25 people gathered before heading to a tented polling station.
Meanwhile, some 20 paramilitary police in riot gear were stationed in a central Harare park, while riot police and regular uniformed officers manned roadblocks in front of the South African Embassy, where at least 200 fugitives of violence in the countryside were camped with blankets and bundles of belongings in the parking lot.
On Thursday, Mugabe said he was "open to discussion" with the MDC, but only after the vote. Mugabe had shown little interest in talks and his government had scoffed at Tsvangirai's call Wednesday to work together to form a transitional authority.
Tsvangirai was first in a field of four in the first round of voting held March 29, but the official tally said he did not gain the votes necessary to avoid a run-off against second-place Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly three decades.
Tsvangirai's party and its allies won control of parliament in the March elections, dislodging Mugabe's party for the first time since it took power when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.
Mugabe, once hailed as a leader committed to development and reconciliation, has been criticized in recent years as a dictator who has allowed Zimbabwe to spin into economic turmoil. Efforts to dislodge him at the ballot box have repeatedly been stymied by fraud and intimidation.
President Robert Mugabe reacts after casting his vote in Harare on Friday while his wife, Grace, looks on.
The thing I thought was just obviously screwed up was last night I saw the footage of him caliming he'll meet with his rival after the election to talk about how to deal with things......
..... If he and his party leaders head out to talk with them after they corrupted the vote and won, anybody in their right mind would know that would also be the last time we ever see them alive.