HARARE Zimbabwe's opposition said they were on the verge of taking power on Tuesday after dismissing speculation that they would negotiate a managed exit for veteran President Robert Mugabe.
Both opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Mugabe's government strongly denied foreign media speculation that a deal had been reached to arrange the departure of Mugabe after 28 years of uninterrupted power.
"There is no discussion and this is just a speculative story," Tsvangirai told a news conference when asked about reports that his aides and ruling ZANU-PF party officials had negotiated a deal.
Brushing aside projections showing he would fail to win an absolute majority and would be forced into a runoff against Mugabe, Tsvangirai said: "Today we face a new challenge, that of governance."
Speculation that Mugabe would stand down voluntarily rather than face a runoff began after ZANU-PF sources and independent monitors said that although Tsvangirai had won, he would fall just short of the 51 percent needed for outright victory.
Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba described reports of an exit deal as "nonsense" and dismissed rumors that the president would address the nation on television on Tuesday night.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 but faced an unprecedented challenge in Saturday's elections because of a two-pronged opposition attack and the economic collapse of his once prosperous country, which has reduced much of the population to misery.
FEAR OF VIOLENCE
A senior Western diplomat in Harare told Reuters the international community was discussing ideas to try to persuade Mugabe to step down, "but I don't think there is anything firm on the table."
There are fears both inside and outside Zimbabwe that the three-week hiatus before a runoff vote would spark serious violence between security forces and militia loyal to Mugabe on one side and MDC supporters on the other.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the election stand-off in Zimbabwe could turn into violence but hoped the country would avoid the bloodshed recently witnessed in Kenya after disputed elections there.
"Having just gone through this situation in Kenya, I hope there is not going to be a repeat in Zimbabwe, but given the nature of this you cannot exclude that there will be some violence," Annan, who brokered an end to the crisis in Kenya, told journalists in Lisbon.
The United States said it was time for Zimbabwe's electoral commission to issue results.
"It's clear the people of Zimbabwe have voted for change," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
No presidential results have been announced three days after polls closed, fuelling suspicions that Mugabe was trying to avoid defeat by rigging.
But two ZANU-PF party sources said on Tuesday its projections showed Tsvangirai getting 48.3 percent against Mugabe's 43 percent, with former finance minister Simba Makoni taking 8 percent.
Latest results from the parliamentary election showed ZANU-PF with one more seat than the mainstream MDC, and five seats going to a breakaway faction of the opposition. 176 seats have now been announced from a total of 210.
Seven of Mugabe's ministers have lost their seats.
Tsvangirai and many foreign governments urged the electoral commission to speed up result announcements. He said the MDC would announce its own tally of the final result on Wednesday.
The opposition and international observers said Mugabe rigged the last presidential election in 2002. But some analysts say the groundswell of discontent over an economy in freefall is too great for him to fix the result this time without risking major unrest.
Zimbabweans are suffering the world's highest inflation of more than 100,000 percent, food and fuel shortages, and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep drop in life expectancy.
The opposition is expected to unite behind one candidate if there is a runoff, which would be held three weeks after last Saturday's election.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Banya, Cris Chinaka, Stella Mapenzauswa and Muchena Zigomo, Henrique Almeida in Lisbon, and Washington bureau)
(Writing by Barry Moody; editing by Michael Georgy and Mary Gabriel)
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