Zimbabwe opposition claims election win

President Robert Mugabe's government warns that premature victory claims would be seen as a 'coup.'

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    Police officers stand guard over ballot boxes in Zvimba, Zimbabwe.
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– Casting their votes Saturday, Zimbabweans have made up their minds on whether they want another five years of President Robert Mugabe.

The answer, according to preliminary results monitored at polling stations by opposition activists and independent observers seems to be an unqualified "no."

But with no official results announced by Sunday night, tensions were rising in the capital, Harare.

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Now all eyes are turning to Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF Party, and especially his well-armed military and security agencies.

Senior police, intelligence, and military commanders have all said they would not salute a "puppet," referring to top opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. One senior ZANU-PF official even warned opposition activists not to declare premature victory, saying that the government would treat this as a "coup."

Yet if the military commanders order a clampdown on opposition supporters, will their soldiers – as poverty stricken as much of the rest of the country – follow them?

"There's a lot of talk about people's power at the polls, but a change of leadership will only happen if the military joins the masses," says Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "The question now is, what will the military do?"

While police forces, and especially the riot police are well looked after, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) reportedly have been struck with mass desertions, says Mr. Boshoff. At times, the ZDF has been so hard up for cash and supplies that it has sent its troops home on compulsory leave because it couldn't feed them. As such, Boshoff says, statements by senior military commanders should be taken with a grain of salt.

"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 Boshoff.

Opposition celebrations

In constituencies around the country, supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party started to celebrate. Jubilant crowds filled the streets of Harare as word of the MDC's victory spread across the country. Many said the MDC victory meant an end to the suffering of Zimbabweans, whose country has the highest inflation rate in the world (100,000 percent) and 80 percent unemployment to boot.

"Our cries have been heard," said Arnold Munashe, a voter in Harare. "The old man is gone and our suffering has ended. Let's try another leader, Morgan Tsvangirai," he said, referring to the MDC leader as he joined his colleagues in the celebrations.

In Mbare, Harare's oldest high-density suburb, suspected Zanu-PF militia forced the closure of a popular market as punishment for "voting the MDC into power." The market was only reopened after police intervention.

In the suburbs of Harare, opposition celebration has been halted by heavily armed police, who have been deployed around the country to thwart any form of political violence.

Government delaying results?

Tendai Biti, the MDC's secretary-general, told a midmorning press conference in Harare that his party was increasingly getting worried by the continued delay in the announcement of the official results.

"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," Mr. Biti said. "We suspect that there is a prima facie case of constitutional assault."

Biti went on to announce a list of initial results showing areas that his party has won, saying their lead is based on results posted overnight on the doors of polling stations, which party election agents sent by mobile phone text messages.

"It's a landslide," says Gordon Moyo, director of Bulawayo Agenda, a coalition of civil society groups in the western region of Matabeleland. "We expected the opposition to do well in urban areas like Harare and Bulawayo, but Tsvangirai is taking rural areas too, even in the heart of Mashonaland, where Mugabe gets his support."

"Mugabe can't rig the election now. He can't steal it like [President Mwai Kibaki] did in Kenya," he says. "The margin is too overwhelming now. The people will not stand down until their leaders are in charge."

For its part, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission says it does not know when final election results will be officially released.

Electoral Commission chairman George Chiweshe said he had "no idea" when he will start announcing the official results, since Zimbabwe is holding its first ever "harmonized" general elections with concurrent voting for local council, two houses of parliament, and the presidency.

While opposition activists have already begun announcing preliminary results from polling stations, Mr. Chiweshe said that "we haven't received a single result as yet."

At the commission national collation center in Harare, where all votes will be counted, the only visible sign of activity was a handful of young women typing.

Although voting in Saturday's elections was generally peaceful, the country's military chiefs have announced that security forces have been put on high alert.

Police Commissioner Gen. Augustine Chihuri said the police would not hesitate to use "full force" to stop politically motivated violence.

General Chihuri, together with Defense Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga and Zimbabwe Prisons Services boss Paradzai Zimondi have vowed not to salute anyone other than President Robert Mugabe, statements that many observers see as a veiled threat of a military coup if Tsvangirai wins.

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