Zimbabwe's capital was notably silent Thursday, as the results from Saturday's presidential elections remain unannounced five days after the vote.
The country's opposition has trumpeted an outright victory based on what it claims was a razor-thin majority of 50.3 percent. Many observers have accused President Robert Mugabe's government of not releasing official tallies so that it can formulate a strategy to deal with what appears will be a loss, even if the election goes to a runoff within three weeks.
Now, as official parliamentary results show that Mr. Mugabe's ruling party has lost control of Parliament, all eyes turn to Zimbabwe's State House, to see whether his cabal will graciously accept defeat or violently intimidate voters ahead of the runoff, a tactic they've used successfully in the past. In a sign that he may be willing again to use harsh tactics to remain in power, government forces raided the offices of the main opposition movement and rounded up foreign journalists Thursday night.
Insiders in the ruling ZANU-PF party confirmed Thursday that the president and his top advisers will hold a Politburo meeting on Friday to decide what to do next.
Sources in the ZANU-PF told the Monitor that Mugabe's coterie are already mobilizing members of their youth militia and war veterans – both of whom are personally loyal to Mugabe and have received confiscated white-owned farms in return for their loyalty – to beat up people, particularly in rural areas. Their goal: to prevent people from casting votes in favor of the opposition candidate in a runoff.
"Mugabe will use violence to intimidate people in villages and rural areas," says Gordon Moyo, an independent political activist and director of Bulawayo Agenda, a coalition of civil society groups in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. "But people underestimate the sophistication of rural voters. They have an appetite for taking this further on Election Day. After the first round, people realize, their vote counts."
Can he intimidate voters this time?
Even if the various members of Mugabe's Politburo – especially the military service chiefs, who proclaimed they would accept no one but Mugabe as their chief – vote to begin a campaign of intimidation against the opposition, Mugabe's capacity to carry out his strategy may be severely weakened, Moyo adds. Mugabe's party no longer commands the voters' respect, Moyo adds.
"Most of the people who have been helping Mugabe up until now have already won their elections to the House of Assembly, so now they have no interest in helping Mugabe with the violence," says Moyo. "In addition, Mugabe has lost a lot of his closest supporters. He's an isolated person now, a lonely man."
Calls to step down quietly
"Why should the president, given all he has done for this country, subject himself to such indignity?" asked Moyo, who recently won a House of Assembly seat as an independent. "This is a runoff he cannot win. He must realize that, having lost the first round, he cannot win the second. Mugabe and members of his party, ZANU-PF, should be gracious in defeat."
Moyo describes the delay in announcing the results of Saturday's presidential race as a chance for authorities to "manage the defeat."
"The chief secretary to the president and cabinet does not even know what to do because he has never been in such a situation before," said Moyo. "Part of the reason for the delay is because there is anxiety [within the security forces], especially those service chiefs who unwisely, or rather foolishly, told the whole world that they would not salute any other winner than Mugabe."
In Harare, police presence is very high. Antiriot water-cannon tankers have been stationed at major police stations and strategic areas, probably an attempt to intimidate the electorate and opposition supporters from holding rallies.
Friday's Politburo meeting is likely to decide when the results will be released, and sources say the results could come immediately after the politburo meeting ends on Friday.
Yet MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said on Thursday that if the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announces results that are different from the MDC's 50.3 percent and call for a runoff, the MDC will verbally protest but participate nonetheless.
Mr. Biti said the MDC is confident of an overwhelming victory that would embarrass Mugabe.
"We know we have won this election by 50.3 percent. If ZEC calls for a runoff we will take part, but I can tell you the old man will be humiliated," he said. Biti said he was confident that people who did not vote in the March 29 election will come to cast their votes because "they have seen that it is possible to vote Mugabe out of power."
About 2.3 million people voted in Saturday's election, out of 5.9 million registered voters.
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.