Just three weeks before the presidential runoff, Robert Mugabe is giving the opposition no room to maneuver _ harassing and threatening to arrest its candidate, banning its rallies and attacking diplomats who try to investigate political violence.
Even food is a weapon, with a ban on aid agencies ensuring the poorest Zimbabweans must turn to Mugabe for help even if they blame him for the collapse of the economy.
Morgan Tsvangirai, a trade union activist turned democracy campaigner, out-polled Mugabe and two other candidates in the March 29 first round of presidential voting, but did not garner the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff. In recent days, it has become increasingly clear Mugabe does not plan to let Tsvangirai come close to toppling him in the June 27 runoff.
Tsvangirai tried to campaign around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, Friday. He was stopped at two roadblocks, the second time ordered to go to a police station about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Bulawayo.
About two hours later, he and reporters with him were allowed to leave the station. They drove back to Bulawayo under police escort.
Tsvangirai's spokesman, George Sibotshiwe, said Tsvangirai was questioned by police at the station for 25 minutes, and was told that all party rallies in the country had been banned indefinitely.
"We are dismayed that our president has not been allowed to access the Zimbabwean people at a crucial stage in this campaign," Sibotshiwe said.
In a statement Friday, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said police had banned its rallies out of concern for the safety of Tsvangirai and other party leaders. Sibotshiwe called the justification "nonsense," and said the ban was "a clear indication that the regime will do everything necessary to remain in power."
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena insisted in an interview with The Associated Press "people are free to campaign as they choose," but he said Tsvangirai had consistently broken the law by failing to notify police of his rallies.
"For now, we are just warning him," Bvudzijena said, "but sooner or later he might end up being arrested."
Tsvangirai left the country soon after the first round of voting, in March, and his party has said he was the target of a military assassination plot. He has survived at least three previous assassination attempts. Tsvangirai had only returned to Zimbabwe in late May to campaign for the runoff.
The government-controlled media has focused on Mugabe and ZANU-PF, all but ignoring Tsvangirai's campaign, raising the question of whether Zimbabweans in isolated rural areas even know the opposition leader has returned.
Tsvangirai's party, blaming state agents, says at least 60 of its supporters have been slain in the past two months.
The latest setback for Tsvangirai came as U.N. aid agencies said they were deeply concerned because aid groups have been ordered to halt operations. Millions of Zimbabweans depend on international groups for food and other aid as the economy crumbles. Without the private agencies, impoverished Zimbabweans will be dependent on the government and Mugabe's party, both of which distribute food and other aid.
The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, said Friday that Zimbabwean authorities were now supplying food mostly to Mugabe supporters. In a videoconference to reporters in Washington from Zimbabwe's capital, McGee said the U.S. Embassy has evidence that the government is offering food to opposition members only if they turn in identification that would allow them to vote.
Thursday, aid groups in Zimbabwe were sent a memorandum from social welfare minister Nicholas Goche ordering an indefinite suspension of field work.
Aid deliveries to more than 4 million people in the African country will be severely hampered by the decision, said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Friday. More than half Zimbabwe's population live on less than US$1 a day and life expectancy is only 35 years, according to the U.N.
U.N. agencies generally carry out their operations in the country with the help of other aid groups, Byrs said.
"These restrictions are also coming at a time when food security in Zimbabwe is deteriorating, leaving an increasing number of people vulnerable," she said.
Poor rain recently has increased the risk of drought, and farmers lack seeds, Byrs said.
Goche's memorandum to the United Nations and other aid groups did not mention government claims that aid was distributed to favored recipients or opposition supporters or that civic and human rights groups registered as voluntary organizations were campaigning against Mugabe.
Earlier this week, the aid organization CARE International said it had been ordered to halt operations pending an investigation of allegations it was campaigning for the opposition. CARE denies the allegation.
Byrs, of the U.N., said the suspension of CARE's activities alone would immediately affect half a million Zimbabweans.
Thursday, a mob of Zimbabwe "war veterans," a group of often violent Mugabe loyalists, waylaid a convoy of American and British diplomats investigating political violence, beating a local staffer, slashing tires and threatening to burn the envoys, the U.S. Embassy said.
Mugabe frequently accuses Britain and the United States of plotting to topple him and return Zimbabwe to colonial rule.
Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and was once hailed as a liberator who promoted racial reconciliation and economic empowerment.
But he has been accused of clinging to power through election fraud and intimidation, and of destroying his country's economy through the seizure of white-owned farms beginning in 2000.
Discontent over the economy propelled Tsvangirai to the top in presidential voting March 29.
Carolyn Norris, an Africa specialist at Human Rights Watch, called the move against aid groups "part of campaign, there has been extreme campaign of violence, and torture, for people who voted for" Tsvangirai's party.
"We don't know if this will convince people to vote" for Mugabe, Norris said, adding Zimbabwe's population "seems determined to vote how it wants to."
Tsvangirai also said he expected Mugabe's crackdown to backfire, saying in an interview Thursday: "If Mugabe did not hear the voice in March, he's going to hear a much louder voice that people no longer enjoy their confidence in this government."