HARARE (Reuters) - Riot police in armored carriers deployed in two of Harare’s opposition strongholds on Monday night as suspicions grew that President Robert Mugabe was trying to rig Zimbabwe’s most important election since independence.
A resident of one of the townships said a convoy of riot police in about 20 vehicles moved through the vast area. “There are a lot of patrols here,” said the resident, adding people had been told to stay off the normally teeming streets.
More than 48 hours after polls closed, only 66 of 210 parliamentary constituencies had been declared, showing the ruling ZANU-PF one seat ahead of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Two of President Robert Mugabe’s ministers lost their seats.
No results have been announced for the presidential vote, in which Mugabe faces the most formidable political challenge of his 28 years in power.
The opposition has accused the veteran leader of delaying the issuing of the results in a bid to steal the election, which Zimbabweans hoped would help rescue a country ravaged by an economic crisis.
“It is now clear that there is something fishy. The whole thing is suspicious and totally unacceptable,” MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said.
An independent Zimbabwean election monitoring group forecast Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the largest faction of the MDC, would win the most votes in the presidential poll but not by a big enough margin to avoid a second round.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said its projections giving him 49.4 percent were based on a random sample of 435 polling stations across the country’s 10 provinces.
It predicted Mugabe would win 41.8 percent and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni would get 8.2 percent.
Seven European countries and the United States expressed concern over the delay, and called on Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission to quickly release the results, especially for the presidential election.
Electoral Commission chairman George Chiweshe said the slow pace was due to the complexity of holding presidential, parliamentary and local polls together for the first time.
“FAIR AND CREDIBLE”
Mugabe, 84, is under unprecedented pressure from a two-pronged attack by veteran MDC rival Tsvangirai and Makoni, who both blame him for Zimbabwe’s ruin.
Zimbabweans are 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.
And although the odds seemed 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 ignore the results and declare victory.
He rejects vote-rigging allegations.
The U.S. State Department called on Zimbabwe’s electoral commission to put aside “partisan sympathies” and “follow the letter and spirit of the law”.
Marwick Khumalo, head of an observer group from the Pan-African parliament, said the elections themselves were free, fair and credible overall.
But he added: “The mission is concerned that two days after the closure of the polls, the overall outcome of the elections remains unknown.”
Official results so far showed ZANU-PF with 31 seats, MDC with 30 and a breakaway MDC faction with five.
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.
The MDC said unofficial tallies showed Tsvangirai had 60 percent of the presidential vote, twice the total for Mugabe, with more than half the results counted. Private polling organizations also put Tsvangirai well ahead.
“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,” MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti said.
In his first public comments since the vote, Makoni criticized the way results were being announced. “We are very worried by the manner in which things are unfolding,” he said.
Tsvangirai and some international observers accused Mugabe of stealing the last presidential election in 2002.
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Public Affairs Minister Chen Chimutengwende both lost their seats.
The government has warned that any early victory claim would be regarded as an attempted coup.
Additional reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa, Nelson Banya and Muchena Zigomo, Paul Taylor in Brussels, by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Adrian Croft in London; James Mackenzie in Paris; editing by Michael Georgy and Mary Gabriel