Zimbabwe elections: 'This country stands on a precipice'

ZIMBABWE is poised for political upheaval in the wake of a disputed election result, according to opposition leaders who say the troubled country "stands on a precipice".

Only a trickle of official results from Saturday's ballot emerged yesterday, prompting fears that Robert Mugabe, the president, was planning a massive fraud in the face of overwhelming defeat.

Amid widespread rumours that Mr Mugabe is preparing to flee the country, it is understood South Africa has been called upon by foreign leaders to persuade him to accept defeat.

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Results showed Mr Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party was neck-and-neck with the opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, in the constituency votes. However, the MDC issued its own figures claiming it had 60 per cent of the ballot, compared to 30 per cent for Mr Mugabe.

Only a limited number of observers have been allowed to monitor the election, but the voting process itself appears to have been relatively free of fraud. It is the announcement of the results which has prompted international concern.

The United States and Britain were among those yesterday calling on Mr Mugabe to announce the full election results as quickly as possible.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said there should be "no unnecessary delay" in releasing the full results and described the next few days as "critical for the future of Zimbabwe".

The elections presented Mr Mugabe, 84, with the toughest challenge yet to his 28-year rule. Voting was generally peaceful after a campaign which focused on the ruined economy, with inflation soaring beyond 100,000 per cent.

Tendai Biti, the general-secretary of the MDC, claimed vote-rigging was under way which was aimed at giving Mr Mugabe a 52 per cent victory in the presidential race and his party 111 of the 210 House of Assembly seats. A presidential candidate needs at least 50 per cent plus one to avoid a second round vote.

Mr Biti said the slow official reporting "raises tension among the people". He added: "This country stands on a precipice."

Mr Tsvangirai narrowly lost disputed 2002 elections, and questions have been raised as to whether Mr Mugabe would accept defeat this time.

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Mr Tsvangirai could declare himself the official winner this morning, ending the suspense of Harare residents who spent yesterday glued to phones, radios and foreign news stations, desperate for news. Networks jammed, making it impossible to make phone calls. In bread queues, people shouted out: "How are the elections?"

The first results were not announced on state radio until yesterday morning – 36 hours after polls ended. There was excitement when the first seat went to the MDC. "We're going to celebrate," said a waiter in Newlands, Harare. "Does Mugabe think he can pull up his socks now? Change is coming."

Another man told queueing customers in a supermarket in Kensington suburb that Mr Mugabe had fled "to Malaysia" and that Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe who printed trillions of dollars to allow Mr Mugabe to purchase cars, farm machinery and fuel for election handouts, had also left the country.

These rumours were unconfirmed. Mr Mugabe is believed to have arranged ahead of the elections for his helicopter to be permanently ready at State House, his heavily guarded official residence near the city centre.

Excitement turned to despondency as it soon became clear that the release of the results was being carefully choreographed. They were announced apparently randomly, not in alphabetical order nor by province.

Each announcement of an MDC win was followed by a ZANU-PF win, so that by last night it appeared the opposition and the ruling party were running neck-and-neck, each with 26 parliamentary seats.

There was no word on presidential results.

Residents expressed disbelief at the size of the ruling party victory in some constituencies, fuelling fears the MDC might not have scooped the overwhelming victory it initially claimed.

Joyce Mujuru, the vice-president, held her Mount Darwin West seat with 14,000 votes to just over 1,000 for the MDC.

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Official results showed several other ruling party heavyweights – including David Parirenyatwa, the health minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, the deputy youth minister, Nicholas Goche, the labour minister and Webster Shamu, the minister for policy implementation – were also re-elected with large majorities.

In a tin-roofed shack in Avondale suburb, Cephas, a secondhand book dealer, said: "We are sick of all this waiting. We want change. Our lives are so bad."


Why are delays significant?

In past elections, results emerged quickly. Further delays would stoke opposition suspicions of rigging to ensure the continued rule of Mugabe, blamed by opponents for an economic crisis that has ruined Zimbabwe.

How did voting go?

There were no major reports of violence in Saturday's vote but the opposition and one African observer group reported irregularities – including rolls with many non-existent or dead voters. Most international observers were banned.

Who will win?

Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says it won based on local vote counts pinned up outside polling stations. The government has warned such premature declarations could amount to "a coup".

Many analysts expect the result to be manipulated and said Mugabe would declare victory even if he lost. Security service chiefs have said they would not accept an opposition win. Tsvangirai and some international observers said Mugabe lost the last presidential election in 2002 but he stayed in power.

If no candidate gets over half the votes in the first round of the presidential election, there would be a run-off.

What if Mugabe wins?

If Mugabe wins the presidential poll outright, this is certain to be rejected by the opposition MDC and some of its supporters could take to the streets. But a scenario of prolonged protests and bloodshed seems unlikely.

What if Tsvangirai wins?

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If Tsvangirai wins, ZANU-PF militants and security forces are likely to reject his victory, leading to a violent crackdown against the MDC. Tsvangirai has said he would form a national unity government, bringing in moderate elements of ZANU-PF.

What if there is a run-off?

A second round could unite the opposition. The campaign of Simba Makoni, whose split from the ruling ZANU-PF party showed up its internal divisions, has already said he would swing his support behind Tsvangirai. Makoni appears to have done badly in the vote, falling into a distant third place.

If there is a run-off, Mugabe would be expected to deploy ZANU-PF militants and independence-war veterans to ensure victory, raising the prospect of violent clashes with defiant MDC supporters in the three-week hiatus between votes.

A run-off is likely to end with Mugabe being declared victor, leaving political tension and no prospect of saving the economy.

What do the results show?

Not much so far. Only a few parliamentary results have been issued by the electoral commission. First parliamentary constituency results were evenly split between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC. However the opposition says its own unofficial count shows it has 60 per cent of the presidential vote and a similar proportion of the 210 parliamentary constituencies.

Analysts say early counting tends to come from the opposition's urban strongholds whereas later results will include rural areas that are Mugabe's traditional base.