NAIROBI, Kenya — Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew Sunday from this week's run-off presidential election in the beleaguered southern African nation, saying he could no longer participate in a race that's been marred by the widespread intimidation, torture, mutilation and murder of his supporters.
The decision effectively hands victory to longtime President Robert Mugabe, whose supporters have engaged in a campaign of terror that has left at least 85 opposition members and activists dead in recent weeks, according to Zimbabwean human rights groups.
Tsvangirai concluded that Mugabe was determined to hang on to power at any cost and pulled out of the race to avoid further bloodshed, said members of his party, the Movement of Democratic Change. Tsvangirai was detained several times during the campaign and the party's secretary-general, Tendai Biti, has been imprisoned on treason charges, which carry a possible death sentence.
"We in the MDC have resolved that we will no longer participate in this violent, illegitimate sham of an election process," Tsvangirai said at a news conference in the capital, Harare.
"We can't ask the people to cast their vote on June 27 when that vote will cost their lives."
Officials with Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party immediately said that Friday's election would go ahead as planned. The information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, predicted to the BBC: "President Mugabe will win resoundingly."
But Tsvangirai's decision figured to put pressure on Zimbabwe's neighbors to withhold recognition of Mugabe and persuade the 84-year-old leader to form a coalition government with his rival. Mugabe has long enjoyed the support of African leaders because of his role in Zimbabwe's liberation war against Britain, but that support appears to be flagging.
Envoys from Tanzania and Kenya called for greater pressure on Mugabe to ensure a free election at a United Nations meeting called last week by the United States. But South Africa, the regional powerhouse and Mugabe's staunchest backer, has refused to express concerns about the electoral process.
In Washington, Carlton Carroll, a White House assistant press secretary, released a statement saying: "The government of Zimbabwe and it's thugs must stop the violence now."
A statement on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's behalf deplored pre-election attacks on the opposition as "a blatant violation of democracy."
By pulling out of the race, Tsvangirai "removes the rug of legitimacy from underneath Mugabe's feet," said David Coltart, a senator from Tsvangirai's party. "It's well nigh impossible for any credible African leader to endorse this result."
Tsvangirai said that he was open to talks with Mugabe and welcomed mediation by South African President Thabo Mbeki, although those efforts have made little progress since the first-round election in March. Tsvangirai won 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe's 43 percent, according to the official government tally, although Tsvangirai's party disputed the result and said that he'd in fact won a slim majority of 50.3 percent.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and initially won praise for promoting racial reconciliation, has driven Zimbabwe to economic ruin with a host of failed policies, starting a decade ago with the seizure of white-owned farms. He staved off challenges in previous elections with intimidation and vote-rigging, according to numerous independent analysts and civic groups.
Analysts said that Mugabe's defiant rhetoric in the run-off campaign — he repeatedly vowed never to cede power and told supporters last week that only God could remove him from office — indicated that African leaders would need to dramatically change tactics to raise pressure on Mugabe.
"Now it's clear that the crisis is going to escalate, especially if the response from (African leaders) is not robust," said Denis Kadima, executive director of the independent Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, which sent monitors to observe the March voting.
The veneer of a free and fair election was stripped away long ago. Over the past two months, according to local and international rights groups, Zimbabwean police have arbitrarily arrested civic activists and forced several charity agencies to suspend their operations, charging that they were aiding the opposition.
The violence appeared to be worsening as the vote neared. Last Thursday alone, 12 people believed to be opposition supporters were found tortured to death throughout the country, according to Amnesty International.
Tsvangirai's decision came hours after members of the ruling party's youth militia, armed with clubs and sticks, beat several opposition supporters who were attempting to gather for a rally in Harare. The mobs, crammed into the backs of trucks and chanting ruling party slogans, also chased away independent election monitors, according to opposition officials and media reports.