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Members of new opposition grouping are beaten and killed, sparking concerns for next year's pivotal presidential poll. By Tomas Queface in Maputo.

Zimbabweans are braced for violence ahead of midterm elections on March 26.

The ballots, which were delayed from last March due to Covid-19 restrictions on large gatherings, will be a bellwether for the newly formed opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and its leader Nelson Chamisa, following their rift with the main opposition grouping, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Chamisa, who used to lead one of the MDC offshoots, hopes to oust Zanu-PF's Emmerson Mnangagwa in next year’s presidential elections.

A total of 28 parliamentary seats and 105 local government seats are up for grabs on March 26, most of which have been caused by opposition MPs and councillors switching to the new CCC party.

According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the results of the National Assembly by-elections will be announced on March 27, and the results from the council elections will be published by April 1.

However, there are already fears over the likely fairness of the polls.

Elections in Zimbabwe have been characterised by violence, murders and human rights violations. And this year has been no different.

There have been numerous reports of violence against members of opposition parties, as well as speeches by senior members of the ruling Zanu-PF party inciting violence against its opponents.

On February 26, Zimbabwe's vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, warned CCC and its leader that Zanu-PF would crush them like 'lice'.

Speaking at a Zanu-PF rally in Kwekwe, Midlands Province, Chiwenga said: 'Let me assure you that there is nothing [Chamisa] can achieve; you see how we crush lice with a stone. You put it on a flat stone and then flatten it to the point that even flies won't make a meal out of it.'

While Zimbabwe's vice-president was speaking to party loyalists in Kwekwe, CCC supporters were being attacked with tear gas by police in the nearby Midlands town of Gokwe Centre, according to NewZimbabweVision.

Even more concerning, on the following day, a group of suspected Zanu-PF loyalists stabbed to death opposition supporter Mboneni Ncube, 30, and seriously injured 22 others in an attempt to prevent people from attending a CCC demonstration in Kwekwe.

Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International's deputy director for Southern Africa, said: 'The government's rhetoric has done much to incite such vicious violence and little to ensure the free exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly and association', adding 'this attack has all the hallmarks of a premeditated attack aimed at intimidating the political opposition and blocking access to its voters ahead of the upcoming elections.'

Sikhululekile Masingaidze, Principal Investigator for Human Security and Climate Change at Good Governance Africa, warned that these elections are a harbinger of things to come at next year's presidential polls.

She said they provide the state of play on how Zanu-PF will work to secure its victory through the use of intimidation and electoral fraud and questioned whether the newly created CCC party will be able to adapt and navigate this tense political landscape.

Zimbabwean activist and professor Brian Raftopoulos believes that the emerging CCC will still face major challenges, with attacks from the judiciary.

This was evidenced by the exceptionally strict conditions imposed by the Zimbabwean police on the first CCC rally held on February 20, which included orders against 'intrusion by people from other constituencies' and 'chanting slogans and chanting and spreading hateful and defamatory information'.

None of these restrictions were placed on earlier rallies by the Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai (MDC-T).

However, its leader, Douglas Mwonzora, has complained of voter intimidation, blaming both Zanu-PF and CCC supporters.

Masingaidze said that all democratically inspired movements in Zimbabwe face the enormous task of consolidating a new culture of political engagement and promoting good governance. She added that they must exercise sincerity in combating the culture of violence and corruption, cultures that over the years have become a defining feature of the country's politics.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops and the leaders of other religions have urged government institutions to hold peaceful, free and fair elections.

The declaration was signed by Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare, as president of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference.

Other signatories include Bishop L M Khanye of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), Bishop N Muparutsa of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), and Bishop PN Makamba of the Union for the Development of Apostolic and Zionist Churches in Zimbabwe (UDACIZA).

According to VaticanNews, the religious leaders also urged Zimbabwe's security forces to act in a professional and non-partisan manner to avoid loss of life.

They added that there should not be 'a single soul that is lost before, during and after the mid-term elections due to political violence'.

The national coordinator of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Paul Muchena, confirmed that, as in previous elections, the CCJP will mobilise, train and deploy election observers in all constituencies.

'The CCJP has already mobilized resources for the training, deployment and documentation of observers, both for polling day and for the days before and after the mid-term elections,' Muchena added.

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