Mugabe defeated, opposition says

Official tally to be made public today; Government warns against coup attempts

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robyn Dixon
Los Angeles Times / March 31, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party were defeated in presidential and parliamentary elections, according to the opposition and independent observers, but there was deafening silence yesterday from the Zimbabwe Election Commission, which released no results.

Tension was high here in the capital, as large numbers of riot police patrolled deserted streets after nightfall. There were also reports of riot police in the crowded urban townships.

Fears grew that the count was being rigged as the delay in announcing results wore on. The first official results are usually released within hours of the polls closing.

Mugabe, 84, faced the strongest challenge in his 28 years of power from Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and a ruling party defector, Simba Makoni. There were unconfirmed reports that a swath of key ministers and Mugabe loyalists had lost their seats in parliament.

"The wave of change was too strong," said one shocked ruling ZANU-PF politician who lost office, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said conditions in the ruling party were extremely tense.

Tsvangirai's party maintained that he won 67 percent of the vote in 150 of the 210 constituencies. The figures were based on final tallies posted at individual polling stations after being signed off by electoral officials.

The posting of final tallies at polling stations makes fraud easier to detect and follows recent reforms to election law.

The MDC's secretary general, Tendai Biti, said the final support figure for Tsvangirai was expected to decline to about 55 percent as figures from Mugabe's rural strongholds in Mashonaland Province came in.

In a briefing to diplomats, independent election observers put the result at 55 percent for Tsvangirai, 36 percent for Mugabe, and 9 percent to Makoni, with 66 percent of votes counted.

George Chiweshe, head of the Election Commission, said official results would be issued today.

"It's an involving and laborious process. It takes time for the results to filter through," he said, explaining the delay. He added that only commission results were legitimate.

The country's economic problems have increased opposition to Mugabe. Zimbabweans face the highest inflation in the world and the sharpest economic collapse in any country not at war. The official inflation figure is 100,000 percent, but independent observers put the figure at 200,000 percent with predictions that it could reach half-a-million percent within months.

Even in some ruling party heartland areas, Tsvangirai was well ahead, according to the final posted tallies.

"We've won this election," Biti said. "The results coming in show that in our traditional strongholds, we are massacring them. In Mugabe's traditional strongholds they are doing very badly. There is no way Mugabe can claim victory unless it is through fraud. He has lost this election."

Information Ministry spokesman George Charamba, a close Mugabe ally, warned against an opposition claim of victory before the results came down: "It is called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled," he told the state-owned Sunday Mail.

David Coltart, from a small MDC faction split from the Tsvangirai group, said there were many reports of top Mugabe allies losing their seats.

"If that is true, this is literally a tsunami," he said. Coltart said the sweeping result made it difficult for the regime to rig the count. "I think they're going to be very hard pressed now," he said.

Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a pro-democracy group, said the delay in results created tension and speculation, and he called on the Election Commission to release the results.

"Clearly the delay is fueling speculation that something might be going on," Kututwa said.

Elliot Manyika, the ruling ZANU-PF party's political commissar and elections manager, said the ruling party was winning and the mood in the party was optimistic.

"We get into the election in order to win," he said, speaking at the party's national command center before any results came down.

"We are expecting the announcement to come and when it comes we expect to win because we have the superior candidate in Comrade Mugabe. He's experienced; the others are people who came too late" into politics, Manyika said.

Manyika was unconcerned about the delay in announcing the count. "They're still being counted and collated. Why should I be concerned?"

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned Mugabe's regime yesterday during a visit to Jerusalem. "The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole," she said.

But an observer from the Southern African Development Community reported that the election was "a peaceful and credible expression of the will of the people." Western observers and most Western correspondents were denied accreditation for the elections.

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