For supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - who say that the majority of Zimbabweans preferred their candidate - yesterday's declaration of victory by incumbent President Robert Mugabe can mean only one thing: the election was stolen.
Their conclusion is buttressed by the US, Britain, and several independent-observer groups who strongly condemn the election process, though the influential South African mission says the results are "satisfactory," but wouldn't call them "free and fair."
This leaves Zimbabwe on edge, with riot police moving through the capital yesterday, and bands of Mugabe supporters gathering last night. The results also leave Mr. Tsvangirai and his followers at a strategic and historic crossroad: How to keep the moral high ground and avoid a violent showdown, while challenging the results? "We are determined to redirect our destiny," says Wilfred Mhanda, an opposition-party activist.
The final tally gave Mr. Mugabe 56.2 percent of the nearly 3 mil-lion votes cast, to Tsvangarai's 41.9 percent.
"We do not accept the results," Tsvangarai said plainly at a press conference yesterday.
This, observers say, leaves the MDC with two options: a legal challenge or civil disobedience. But neither is viewed as viable. The courts are stacked with pro-Mugabe appointees, and strikes by citizens could lead to unrest and government retribution.
Tsvangirai says the MDC is not interested in any violent confrontation, but has not ruled out anything. "The people have been cheated," he says. "They will decide what to do."
For more than a year, the Supreme Court has overturned or blocked almost every high-court ruling in favor of the MDC. On the rare occasion that the Supreme Court has sided with the MDC, Mugabe has ignored the decision, overruling it with a presidential decree. Nonetheless, they intend to go through the motions. "We are a constitutional party, and we will seek remedies through constitutional means," Tsvangirai says.
Yesterday, Crisis in Zimbabwe, a network of some 200 civil-society organizations, representing political, legal, and human-rights groups, said that citizens do indeed have legal recourse, and it urged them to act.
"We call upon Zimbabweans to register their concern in accordance with the Constitution starting this Friday," the committee says. According to the Constitution, Zimbabweans have the right to assemble and demonstrate.
This call flies in the face of harsh new security laws passed earlier this year. The laws make any mass action aimed at "coercing" the government an act of treason, punishable by life in prison. Calling any sort of strike could give the government immediate grounds for wholesale arrests of opposition and civil society leaders, several of whom are already facing treason charges.
"Politically, the MDC has to be seen to be doing things within in the law," says Brian Kogoro, director of Crisis in Zimbabwe. "I don't think it will be of any use, but it has to be done."
Mr. Kogoro says that a legal challenge might focus on the disparity between the number of voters who went into the voting booths and the number of votes ultimately counted.
Tawanda Hondora, chair of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, added that another legal challenge might rest on the grounds that while official registration of voters closed on Jan. 27, the government quietly continued to register its supporters until March 4. "Those extra voters, who should not have been eligible to vote, could have swung the elections in favor of President Mugabe," he says. Yet another challenge might focus on the distribution of polling stations, with too few stations being allocated to the urban areas known as opposition strongholds.
From within the MDC there are many voices calling for a "stay away," for people going neither to work nor into the streets in protest. "This is a way to paralyze the country without risking lives," says one official. "We think this could be best."
"The MDC cannot be seen to be encouraging people to take to the streets. It delegitimizes them," says Kogoro. "This is left to other bodies - and they are doing that."
If riots do break out, one question looms: How will the military respond? It is clear that the top command is loyal to Mugabe, and may not hesitate to order troops to shoot into crowds of protesters. Whether the foot soldiers - many of whom are poor and frustrated - will follow orders is yet to be seen.
During the campaign and election, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF showed that they had no hesitation about using violence against opposition supporters.
Urban voters waiting in line to vote were driven away from polling stations with batons and tear gas, and opposition supporters were routinely abducted and beaten. Even before the results of the poll were announced, the Army was deployed in urban opposition strongholds to quell potential uprising.
Despite the dangers of callingfor mass action, anger is running high in urban areas where voters feel disenfranchised, and at least some opposition leaders fear that if they do not declare some sort of national action, there will be spontaneous - and likely tragic - outbursts of violence.
"We are angry. We have nothing to lose. We will fight in the streets if we need to. We will die if we need to," says Energy Gombiro, an MDC supporter.
Voters in at least one Harare neighborhood, Mbare, went to the streets yesterday morning when it became clear that Mugabe would be declared the victor. But they dispersed rapidly after riot police fired shots into the air.
Small groups of ZANU-PF supporters tore down opposition posters and celebrated Mugabe's victory, causing some store-owners to close up shop. MDC supporters gathered at party headquarters were watched closely by riot police.
The Zimbabwe Liberator's Platform, a group of 4,000 liberation war veterans who stand against Mugabe, took out full-page ads in yesterday's local opposition papers, appealing to the military to restrain its actions in the coming days. "Do not allow yourselves to be separated from the very people you serve," say the ads. "The people's interests are paramount."
Furthermore, says one MDC official, secret meetings have been being held "for months" between the opposition and various military men to try to work out a plan of action if violence does break out.
The government of Zimbabwe, which has denied any foul play in the elections, has warned the opposition against defying the results. "The MDC should not try to take to the streets. We said we would accept the will of the people. And we expect them to do the same," says Nathan Shamuyarira, ZANU-PF's secretary of information and Publicity. "And we warn them in particular against choosing a violent solution ... for when it comes to that we have much more experience."