Zimbabwe opposition claims early victory in election

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

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Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), released premature election results on Sunday, which claim a large victory for their presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai against incumbent Robert Mugabe.

MDC leaders said the unofficial tally, based on one-third of the election returns, shows Tsvangirai with 67% of the vote. The results were posted on the doors of polling stations, and then sent to party officials by text messaging. MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said, "Barring a miracle, Mugabe can't win."

The official results are expected to be released Monday, but MDC officials called for them to be released sooner, fearing the government would use the delay to rig the voting. There were unconfirmed reports that military authorities were pressuring the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to declare Mugabe the winner.

Biti called the delay a "constitutional threat" to the election's outcome. "We are very much concerned by the lack of results from [the Electoral Commission] and we suspect that the regime is at loss as to how to respond to the results which are showing that MDC is winning in most parts of the country," said Biti.

George Chiweshe, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, said the commission would not be pressured into releasing the official count early. "We are dealing with a matter with national dimensions," Chiweshe said. "Our mandate is clearly laid down in terms of the Constitution and we have tried -- actually, have followed -- that."

Critics of the government had long predicted that the election would be marred by fraud. Biti accused the ruling Zanu-PF party of chasing away his party's agents from polling stations. In addition, Amnesty International and other human-rights groups have accused the government of harassing the opposition and threatening to cut off food supplies to those who didn't vote for Mugabe's party.

Earlier, Mugabe spokesman George Charamba warned the MDC that declaring a premature victory for Tsvangirai would be tantamount to a coup d'état, "and we all know how coups are handled," he said.

There are concerns that violence may erupt on Monday if both parties claim victory. The United States embassy released a statement warning American citizens in the country of a "volatile situation" and a "possibility of violence across Zimbabwe".

In Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, opposition supporters took to the streets in celebration of the MDC's announcement. One voter remarked, "The old man is gone and our suffering has ended. Let's try another leader, Morgan Tsvangirai." But in the suburbs of Harare, celebration was stifled by heavily armed police, who have been deployed across Zimbabwe to stop any politically-motivated violence.

Police commissioner Augustine Chihuri said his forces would not hesitate to use "full force" against political violence. He and military commander Constantine Chiwenga have vowed not to salute Tsvangirai if he wins. However, some have questioned the effectiveness of the military, citing mass troop desertions and poor funding. "What the military says at the senior level and what happens at the ground level of the rank and file are two very different things," says Henri Boshoff, a military analyst.