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Zimbabwe's opposition claims early lead in polls

Associated Press
Mar 30, 2008 at 09:55pm IST

Harare: Zimbabwe's main opposition party claimed an early lead on Sunday in elections, including in some rural strongholds of President Robert Mugabe, in an apparent effort to thwart any attempt to rig the vote count.

The head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission said he was sure most results were known, warning election officials against delaying announcement of the outcome of Saturday's vote.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said party leader Morgan Tsvangirai was leading the presidential race with 67 per cent of votes, based on returns from 35 per cent of polling stations nationwide.

CELEBRATION: Supporters of the opposition Movement For Democratic Change party celebrate after reports of an early lead.

With three-quarters of Zimbabwe's population living in rural areas where Mugabe garners most of his support, it was impossible to determine what those figures mean to the race.

Reporters mobbed Electoral Commission chairman Judge George Chiweshe, demanding to know when he would start announcing official results.

Chiweshe was hustled, running, through the lobby by security agents, pursued by people shouting, "We want results."

Chiweshe said it was taking time because Zimbabweans - for the first time - voted for president, the two houses of Parliament and local councilors, so four ballots have to be counted for each voter instead of one.

"This has been a more complicated election. We will be releasing the results as soon as we can," he said, speaking at the hotel where the opposition held its news conference.

Election observers who visited the commission's headquarters early on Sunday said it appeared to have only a skeleton staff and seemed in no rush to release results.

"The regime is at a loss and it is taking its time deliberately," said Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic change, expression concern about the delay.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded Mugabe a "disgrace" on Sunday.

Rice, in the Middle East for peace talks, said the United States had made clear its concerns about how the election might be conducted.

"But really, the Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as whole," she said.

Biti told a news conference that opposition leaders are claiming a lead based on results posted overnight on the doors of polling stations, which party election agents sent by mobile phone text messages.

"The people's victory is on course," Biti said on Saturday night. "We have absolutely no doubt that we are winning this election."

People celebrated in the streets, giving each other the openhanded wave that is the opposition party's symbol. Mugabe's is a clenched fist.

In Harare's densely populated Mbare suburb, drivers hooted their horns as opposition supporters sang and danced. "Give Tsvangirai his chance!" they sang.

But Hapisson Mate, a 23-year-old first-time voter, was worried: "Why are we not getting the results? It's very clear to me Mugabe wants to steal this election."

Police had tried to persuade opposition leaders not to announce any results, arguing it was illegal for anyone other than the Electoral Commission to do so.

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But the opposition party's lawyers said the information already was public.

The announcement defied a stern warning from the southern African nation's security chiefs, who already have said they would serve only Mugabe.

"We will not tolerate any such (unofficial election result) pronouncements, as they have the effect of trying to take the law into their own hands, thereby fomenting disorder and mayhem," they had warned on Friday.

Security and other government officials say they do not want to see a scenario similar to Kenya, where a delayed announcement of disputed December election results led to a spontaneous explosion of violence. More than 1,000 people were killed.

"I have no doubt that the large part - if not all - results are known. It is frustrating," Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observers, told South African Broadcasting Corp. TV.

Khumalo, who also observed the Kenyan elections, said the delay "creates anxiety" and has the potential of "upsetting a very peaceful electoral process".

If no presidential candidate wins 50 per cent plus one vote, there will be a runoff.

Running against Mugabe are Tsvangirai, 55, who narrowly lost disputed 2002 elections, and former ruling party loyalist and Finance Minister Simba Makoni, 58.

Makoni threatens to take votes from both the opposition and the ruling party in the elections, which hinged on the destruction of the economy.

Biti said his party had won nearly all parliamentary seats in the two biggest cities, Harare and Bulawayo - no surprise because they are opposition strongholds.

But he said they also won in Mashonaland West and Masvingo districts, as well as the northeastern town of Bindura - all areas where Mugabe has swept votes in the past.

Bindura, a rural mining and agricultural center, is home to the feared youth brigade of Mugabe's ruling party: tens of thousands of thugs known for beating up opposition supporters.

The elections presented Mugabe with the toughest challenge ever to his 28-year rule.

Voting was generally peaceful, with Zimbabweans standing in lines for hours. However, African observers questioned thousands of names on the official roll.

The 84-year-old Mugabe dismissed rigging charges.

"I cannot sleep with a clear conscience if there is any cheating," he said on Saturday after voting and promising to respect results. "If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it is time to leave politics."

A parliamentary candidate for Mugabe's party in Bulawayo, Judith Mkwanda, reported two explosions outside her home that shattered windows just after midnight. Police said it was firebombed. No injuries were reported.

Tsvangirai's party said the home of one of its agents was set ablaze on Saturday in northeast Zimbabwe.

The independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network's monitors reported a heavy police presence at polling stations, ostensibly to help illiterate voters and allowed under a belated presidential decree that breaks an agreement signed with the opposition. The opposition called it intimidation.

Biti and his party have said their agents and supporters were barred from polling stations in several districts, ballot boxes stuffed and election rolls inflated with dead or fictitious people.

Zimbabwe barred several international media organisations from its elections and observers traveling from the US and EU.

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