Zimbabwe's opposition claimed a clear lead over President Robert Mugabe and his party, as Britain and the European Union called for a swift announcement of full results. (Report: C.Norris-Trent)
Zimbabwe's opposition was level with President Robert Mugabe's party and two of his ministers lost their seats on Monday as election results trickled out, but counting delays fuelled suspicions of rigging.
The first official results emerged some 36 hours after polls closed and no details were given on the presidential vote, in which Mugabe faces his most formidable political challenge of 28 years in power. Former colonial ruler Britain and the European Union called for results to be released as soon as possible.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said unofficial tallies showed its leader Morgan Tsvangirai had 60 percent of the presidential vote, twice the total for Mugabe, with more than half the results counted.
Mugabe, 84, faces unprecedented pressure because of Zimbabwe's economic collapse and a two-pronged attack by veteran rival Tsvangirai and ZANU-PF defector Simba Makoni.
Zimbabwe is suffering the world's highest inflation of more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel, and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.
Latest official results showed the opposition MDC and Mugabe's ZANU-PF running neck-and-neck, with 19 seats each from a total parliament of 210 constituencies.
The MDC said its tally showed it had won 96 parliamentary constituencies out of 128 counted. Makoni had 10 percent of the unofficial presidential vote count.
"In our view, as we stated before, we cannot see the national trend changing. This means the people have spoken, they've spoken against the dictatorship," said MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti.
CABINET MINISTERS LOSE
Two of Mugabe's ministers, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Public Affairs Minister Chen Chimutengwende, lost their seats.
Riot police appeared on the streets of the capital overnight and the state-run Herald newspaper accused the MDC of "preparing its supporters to engage in violence by pre-empting results, claiming they had won".
On Sunday the government said any early victory claim would be an attempted coup.
Mugabe's rivals accuse the former guerrilla leader of wrecking a once prosperous economy and reducing the population to misery.
Although the odds seem stacked against Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, analysts believe his iron grip on the country and solid backing from the armed forces could enable him to declare victory.
Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's collapse on Britain and says Western sanctions have sabotaged the economy.
He rejects vote-rigging allegations.
Electoral Commission chairman George Chiweshe said the delay in issuing results was due to the complexity of holding presidential, parliamentary and local polls together for the first time, and to the need to verify results meticulously.
But the opposition said the delay was a plot to keep Mugabe in power.
"In a polluted environment, as you find in Zimbabwe, of polarisation and suspicions that there could be attempts to rig the elections, minor issues such as the delay in the results fuel suspicion that what many people had in mind is indeed being confirmed," said Siphamandla Zondi of South Africa's Institute for Global Dialogue think-tank.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement there should be no unnecessary delay in releasing the results.
"The international community is watching events closely," he said.
A spokesman for the European Commission said it would be "opportune" for the electoral commission to publish final results as soon as possible "to demonstrate its independence and to avoid unnecessary speculation."
Two South African members of a regional observer mission said the delay in announcing the election results "underscores the fear that vote-rigging is taking place".
They refused to sign a positive preliminary report on the poll by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and said there was evidence of "widespread and convincing" MDC wins.
SADC mission chairman Jose Marcos Barrica of Angola told reporters through an interpreter the election had been a "peaceful and credible expression of the will of the people". (Additional reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa, Cris Chinaka, Nelson Banya and Muchena Zigomo, Paul Taylor in Brussels and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
Date created : 2008-03-31