With President Robert Mugabe taking the unusual step of claiming electoral "errors and miscalculations" by his own handpicked Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the stage now is set for the 84-year-old leader to challenge his party's loss of its parliamentary majority and to claim an outright presidential victory in the March 29 elections.
Strong-armed tactics by Mr. Mugabe's police, threats of violence by his loyal armed militias, and an unwillingness to concede defeat in what African observers claim was a "free and fair" election are now putting the international community into a difficult spot. If Mugabe refuses to give up power, what will or can the outside world do?
"I think besides the [United Nations], the region – including members of the Southern African Development Community – is going to take an increasing role in Zimbabwe," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa is now called. "[Mugabe] has lost the plot. He has always given the seeming appearance of legality in the past, but with claiming that his own ZEC has rigged the elections against him, he's overstepped himself."
For years, African leaders have told the world they can solve their own problems through regional bodies such as the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But critics say that African leaders have been quite reluctant to confront one of their own, especially a liberation-era leader such as Mugabe, and that regional mediation efforts such as those instigated by South African President Thabo Mbeki have generally encouraged a continuation of the status quo rather than a pursuit of justice or democratic principles.
If Mugabe overturns the results of the elections to remain in power, the key test of African regional problem solving will be to see what his neighbors – all avowed proponents of democracy – will do.
A wait-and-see approach
In London, Mr. Mbeki – the man selected by the SADC last year to mediate a settlement between Mugabe and the opposition ahead of the election – urged patience this weekend. "It's time to wait," Mbeki told reporters in London. "Let's see the outcome of the election results."
For its part, Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has continued to assert its legitimacy as the rightful victors.
Over the weekend, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai released tabulated results, posted by the ZEC outside each polling station, claiming victory with 50.3 percent over Mugabe's 42.9 percent. An independent group, Zimbabwean Election Support Network, put the figures at 49.4 percent and 41.8 percent respectively, indicating that it would be necessary to hold a runoff vote within three weeks.
The state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper reported that Mugabe's party was challenging election results from 16 parliamentary seats, including four constituencies in the Mberengwa area, implying that the ZEC had skewed election results in favor of the opposition.
"As will soon become apparent, the constituency elections officer and his team committed errors of miscounting that are so glaring as to prejudice not just our clients' candidate," but also ruling ZANU-PF party candidates running for Parliament, the ZANU-PF said in a letter of complaint to the ZEC, quoted by the Sunday Mail.
ZANU-PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa confirmed that his party would be challenging 16 House of Assembly seats won by the MDC, adding that his party was confident that reclaiming the 16 seats won by the MDC would allow ZANU-PF to regain majority in the House of Assembly.
In some parts of the country, veterans of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war against the former white-ruled government of Rhodesia – staunch backers of Mugabe – have set up bases waiting for a green light to strike at white farmers and supporters of the MDC.
Time for the UN to step in?
Ozias Tungawara, a Zimbabwe expert at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg, says that "there is no hope in expecting that the SADC is going to act in a democratic way. The SADC is a club of executives, they are going to close ranks to support each other and to support Mugabe in holding onto power."
But while the SADC and the AU seem to refuse "to hold ZANU-PF to account," in terms of upholding AU standards on the conduct of elections, Mr. Tungawara says that it's time for the UN to step in. "It's high time that the UN take a decisive role and pronounce to the ZANU-PF government that they must adhere to the principles of the UN in terms of democracy and governance. We expect much more stringent action by the UN in intervening more directly in Zimbabwe."
In Harare, Mr. Tsvangirai claimed that strong-arm tactics such as the raiding of MDC offices on Thursday night, the arrest of foreign journalists, and the growing presence of armed riot police on the streets all signal that Mugabe is "preparing a war against the people."
"Mugabe must accept that the country needs to move forward," said Tsvangirai. "He cannot hold the country to ransom. He is the problem not the solution."
Roy Bennett, the MDC's treasurer, told the Monitor that his party would continue to pursue its goals through peaceful means, specifically through the courts.
"We have won the elections, so what we want is to have that fact recognized by the ZEC," says Mr. Bennett. "Mugabe is trying to argue that the MDC bribed the electoral officials, which is nonsense. I believe the ZEC has the results that show we have won with 50 percent, and ... they are trying to argue that ZANU-PF not only won the Parliament but the presidency as well."
Bennett is calling on regional bodies such as SADC to insist that the full legal electoral process be followed by the letter. He also rules out street protests in case ZANU-PF overturns the ZEC results and declares itself victors. "We're not going to call people on the streets. We're not putting people's lives at risk. We will call on the world to pressure Mugabe. We can only do this through righteous acts and never deviate from that."
South African civil liberties group CIVICUS criticized the SADC for calling the Saturday elections "free and fair," while failing to note the beatings and arrests of Zimbabwean activists that preceded the elections.
Speaking of the Thursday arrest of foreign journalists in Harare, CIVICUS secretary general Kumi Naidoo said, "These arrests are a disturbing indication that the Zimbabwean government is trying to silence any critical voices. We … urge [Mbeki], on behalf of Southern Africa, to show leadership in calling for the protection of these rights, said Ms. Naidoo.
Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a former ZANU-PF member and now a political observer in Johannesburg, says that MDC is being "naive" for assuming that Mugabe will simply hand over power.
"[The MDC] doesn't seem to have a Plan B," says Mr. Ndiweni. "SADC is playing quiet and its tactics are simply encouraging Mugabe to devise his own Plan B. [The MDC] should not count on somebody outside to rescue them."
• A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.