It may be the beginning of the end of the Mugabe era, and Zimbabweans can taste it.
Army chiefs loyal to President Robert Mugabe now meet with opposition leaders looking for a smooth end to his ruinous – and often brutal – 28-year reign. Official results from Saturday's elections show he's lost his parliamentary majority. And the opposition has declared an outright win in the presidential race, claiming a razor-thin majority of 50.3 percent of the vote.
Even if Mr. Mugabe manages to make it to a runoff, most experts predict he would lose. The question observers now ask is not whether this is the end of his rule, but how he'll go out.
"Mugabe has run out of options," says Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a Zimbabwe political analyst in Johannesburg. "He wasn't able to rig these elections because, with a man from his own party, Simba Makoni, running against him, he didn't know who he could trust to do the rigging. The head of Mugabe's intelligence is Mr. Simba's man. The deputy commander in charge of police is Simba's man. [Mugabe's people] don't know who is on their side."
Tricks up his sleeve?
No one stays in power 28 years – surviving two elections and multiple power plays within his own party – without having a few tricks up his sleeve, of course, and Robert Mugabe has always been the quintessential survivor.
Yet while Mugabe still retains the personal loyalty of the commanders of the Army, the Air Force, the police, the prison service, and, most important in recent days, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), there is clearly a sense of desperation among Mugabe's supporters and possible signs that the octogenarian leader may be losing support by the day.
"There are clear signs within the ZANU-PF [Mugabe's party] that there is discontent," says Ozias Tungawara, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg. "The head of the Central Intelligence Organization and some of Mugabe's cabinet members had to come out and restate their loyalty to Mugabe. That's a clear sign of distrust, panic, and paranoia."
Discontent runs deep within ZANU-PF, and is most strongly felt by rank-and-file members and civil servants, who have been impoverished by the disastrous past few years of Mugabe, Mr. Tungawara adds. "The likelihood is that even people who believe in the ideology of ZANU-PF would rather see a change in leadership than another term for Robert Mugabe."
"I don't know if I can go so far as to say that Mugabe has run out of options," Tungawara adds. "There is still the tested and tried strategy of choice, which is simply beating people and creating a level of fear to prevent people from voting."
This tested strategy of beating was used as recently as a year ago against Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), after he led protest rallies without government permission. At the time, Mugabe said Mr. Tsvangirai deserved to be beaten.
While Mugabe has clearly lost support within his party, some Zimbabwe watchers say that he still has the ability to manipulate vote results through the hand-picked leadership of the ZEC. On Wednesday, the ZEC announced that ZANU-PF had lost control of parliament to the MDC, but ZEC's pattern of releasing results slowly has raised concerns that the voting tallies are being manipulated in favor of Mugabe.
"The delay in announcing the [official] outcome must be seen as a deliberate and calculated tactic," said Foreign Secretary David Miliband from London. Mr. Miliband said that Zimbabwe had not taken proper precautions to ensure free and fair elections on Saturday and urged that any runoff be held "in a way that gives far greater respect ... to electoral standards."
"I think [Tsvangirai] would be crazy to go for a runoff," says Marian Tupy, an expert on southern Africa and economic reform at the Cato Institute in Washington. "To go into a second round would mean defeat. The ZEC is not independent – they would come up with the numbers to ensure that Mugabe wins."
"This is Mugabe we're dealing with here," Mr. Tupy adds. "He's stolen two elections and he's trying to steal a third."
In the event of a runoff, Mugabe would deploy his war veterans and youth militia to use violence to intimidate the opposition, says Eldred Masunungare, a University of Zimbabwe political scientist. But Mugabe would be unlikely to rely on the Army, police, and intelligence services because "the police and the soldiers are equally disgruntled and the foot soldiers might refuse to obey orders to beat up people or stage a coup."
Hard to steal this election
If Mugabe stole elections in the past, he did it with a very different ZANU-PF than the one he has today. In 2002, ZANU-PF was unified against Tsvangirai, and even though the popular vote seemed to go against Mugabe, the president still won soundly.
Today, with an inflation rate of 100,000 percent, 80 percent unemployment, and life expectancy rates for men dipping downto age 37, even ZANU-PF members are finding it difficult to survive.
Consider the electoral workers who ended up running the polls on election day. In past years, teachers from state schools – each of whom relied on ZANU-PF for their state jobs – were dragooned into being poll workers. This year, one Zimbabwe watcher says, "they brought in police and other civil servants to run the polls, and even then, they didn't know if they could trust them."
And because of new electoral laws, insisted on by the Southern African Development Community, ZEC poll workers had to count votes in polling stations and announce results on election night, two measures that made it harder for the government to cook up voter numbers in their favor. That, too, will remain true in the case of a runoff.
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.