HARARE, Zimbabwe, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Driving though Zimbabwe, one would not know the country is less than three weeks from a crucial presidential election.
Portraits of President Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, are now de rigueur on every office, every bus and taxi and any available tree. In contrast, his principal challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, has a few posters up in central Harare -- where up to 90 percent will vote MDC, or would if they could -- but is everywhere else invisible.
In practice, the MDC has been interdicted from campaigning anywhere in the rural areas, which make up 60 percent of the country.
Last week, election observers from the U.S. National Democratic Institute, the international wing of America's Democratic party, were turned back at Livingstone on the Victoria Falls; observers from its Republican counterpart need not apply either. Swedish diplomat Pierre Schori, head of the European Union's observer delegation, was effectively thrown out of the country Saturday after the government, which had given him only a tourist visa, interpreted his statement that he intended to go ahead with his work as "arrogant" and "political."
The EU replied by cutting off arms sales as well as imposing a travel ban and freezing any EU assets of Zimbabwe's 20 top officials, including Mugabe, who the EU has said for months must restore democracy and the rule of law or face sanctions.
Zimbabwe's borders are now effectively closed to foreign correspondents, and most independent reporters, local and foreign, have been forced out of or fled the country. Mugabe insists that only those journalists accredited by his regime may report the election or be in the country at all.
I have sneaked in via a side route, will not seek accreditation -- and thus will be thrown out, or worse -- but have to keep moving every few days.
In fact, Basildon Peta, the head of Zimbabwe's journalist union, left for South Africa last Thursday, saying he feared for his life. Peta, who reports for the Financial Gazette and Britain's Independent, has been arrested repeatedly, most recently two weeks ago.
"Even people who've been friends with journalists are under suspicion now," one contact sadly explained to me. The secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, has established a special unit to hunt down "unauthorized" foreign correspondents such as this one.
Under new laws pushed through Parliament by Mugabe and his supporters, it's now a crime to criticize the president. Acts of insurgency or sabotage -- defined by Mugabe -- are punishable by death.
There is widespread government-sponsored violence against the MDC and repeated attempts to discredit it with scare stories in the government media: hundreds of British spies are said to be swarming into the country; Britain is alleged to be giving military training to the MDC; the MDC, in alliance with "Tony Blair's Gay gangsters," will (it is claimed) give full recognition to gays and lesbians: "Lower than dogs -- even dogs know biology," as Mugabe puts it.
Mugabe's other favored target is Zimbabwe's white minority, which he calls "as bad as the Jews."
Less than 30,000 are left in a country of 10.5 million. Never a large presence in the first place, an estimated three out of four have left since the raids on white-owned farms and shops -- the underpinnings of what economy Zimbabwe has -- began two years ago.
The Forbes border post at Mutare, on the far eastern tip of Zimbabwe, is one of the most remote and difficult ways into the country: on the other side lie vast expanses of roadless and often land-mined Mozambique. But Dave Hall, an American missionary at Chimolo, Mozambique, told United Press International that nonetheless "the Zimbabwean immigration people are putting the screws to virtually all white-skinned people -- and brown-skinned too -- that try to cross into Zimbabwe from here via the Forbes border post. Not only are they refused entry but they're made to sign a document to that effect and it's stamped in their passports that they were refused entry."
Hall continued, "A few days ago, an American missionary couple with children in boarding school in Zimbabwe were refused entry into the country and told they could have someone bring their children to the border to collect them. They also had with them a young child who had a doctor's appointment in Harare to keep. They were all told to "try again in four weeks" -- when the election's over. The official at Forbes was insulting, totally non-professional in his dealings with them."
The borders are now so tight that even the MDC leader, Tsvangirai, was held for 20 minutes at Harare airport this week, accused of using false travel documents.
Mugabe, who soon turns 78, is under tremendous pressure. At least 560,000 are starving and the number grows daily. Basic staples such as mealie meal, sugar and cooking oil are no longer in the shops and the commercial farms invaded by his "war veterans" are producing next to nothing.