Tension in Zimbabwe after opposition claims victory

The Movement for Democratic Change is trumpeting a huge win and accusing Mugabe's government of delaying results.

By , Staff writer

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    Masked: In a suburb of Harare, children played Monday with a mask of President Mugabe, who observers fear might rig the election and violently quell dissent, as he has in the past.
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Zimbabweans remained calm two days after Saturday's elections, but high expectations of an opposition victory have increased the dangerous potential for postelection violence, observers say.

On Monday, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) began announcing parliamentary election results, allotting 25 seats each to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and 26 to the ruling ZANU-PF of President Robert Mugabe, while MDC spokesmen announced their own set of results, gathered by their own polling agents at 128 of the 210 parliamentary constituencies around the country. By contrast, the MDC predicts 60 percent of the parliamentary vote, with ZANU-PF gaining only 30 percent.

The MDC is now crying foul, accusing the government of intentionally delaying the release of results.

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"It is now clear that there is something fishy. The whole thing is suspicious and totally unacceptable," said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa.

Britain, Germany, and the EU called for faster reporting Monday to ease tensions, and the United States urged Zimbabwe to "do the right thing" as it counts the votes.

"It is no secret that the [ZEC] has a partisan cast to it, and we would certainly hope that regardless of the partisan sympathies of any members of that commission, that they would again follow the letter and spirit of the law," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

MDC raising voter expectations

On election day, as polling agents for the MDC sent results from each polling station to MDC headquarters, MDC spokesmen started predicting a landslide. By late in the evening, the rumor mill in Harare and across the country had proclaimed MDC the winner of 200 out of Zimbabwe's 210 parliamentary seats.

"MDC has created high expectations and high opportunity costs for the ZANU-PF," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa, is now called. Mr. Maroleng was an election observer during Saturday's vote.

This could work to the opposition's favor by turning up the heat and causing ZANU-PF to think twice about stealing the election, as they have done in the past. But it could also be quite dangerous if the military cracks down on opposition supporters in the streets.

"By preemptively declaring victory, it creates an atmosphere where the frustrated part of the electorate may respond violently if the final results don't go the way they were expected," says Maroleng. "This could be costly in terms of lives."

Waiting anxiously for results

In Harare, where MDC supporters danced in the streets after hearing that several of President Mugabe's cabinet members had lost their own parliamentary seats, the MDC announced on Monday morning that it had won 96 parliamentary seats out of the 128 constituencies where MDC polling agents had observed the vote counts.

MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti told reporters that they expect that most voters who voted for an MDC parliamentarian would also vote for MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. If Mr. Tsvangirai wins with a 60 percent portion of the vote, he would not need to face a runoff election.

"In our view, we cannot see the national averages changing," Mr. Biti said. "We wait anxiously for the official announcement of the results."

Biti blasted the ZEC for delays in releasing the poll results. He said Mugabe's government should not "seduce" the people of Zimbabwe into acts of violence by stealing the people's vote.

"Zimbabweans are rightfully anxious," he said. "Zimbabweans are not a violent people and we hope people are not provoked into violence if official results differ from those posted at polling stations."

Not another Kenya

But while some observers worry that anti-Mugabe voters may become violent if they feel the election has been stolen from them, security analyst Henri Boshoff says that a long-term spate of violence, pitting ethnic groups against each other, is unlikely in Zimbabwe.

"The police chief says he will not allow a Kenya to happen in Zimbabwe," says Mr. Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies. Postelection violence in Kenya last December is blamed for the deaths of nearly 1,500 people. "But the truth, I'm afraid, is that is unlikely in any case. Zimbabweans are much more passive, they are more law-abiding, and more afraid of the tactics used by police in the past."

Mugabe, the 84-year-old leader of the liberation movement that toppled the white-supremacist government of Rhodesia in 1980, is credited with enacting free-education policies that have raised Zimbabwe to being one of the most literate countries in southern Africa. But he is also accused of ruining a once-powerful agricultural economy by breaking up productive white-owned commercial farms and giving the land to his cronies and supporters. Once a regional breadbasket, Zimbabwe now imports much of its food.

During Mugabe's 28 years in power, the life expectancy of a male Zimbabwean has fallen to 37 years and unemployment has soared to 80 percent, and the annual inflation rate has now reached 100,000 percent, well above the rate for post World War-Germany, or the 4,000 percent rate of Argentina in the 1990s.

A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.

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