April 3, 2008 / 12:05 AM / 10 years ago

Mugabe in biggest battle after losing parliament

By Muchena Zigomo

HARARE, April 3 (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe is fighting to survive the biggest crisis of his 28-year rule after losing control of Zimbabwe's parliament for the first time since taking power after independence.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said Mugabe had also been defeated in a presidential election last Saturday and should concede defeat.

Mugabe's aides angrily dismissed the MDC claim, hinting the opposition could be punished for publishing its own tallies despite warnings this would be regarded as an attempted coup.

But a state-owned newspaper and projections by Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party conceded that he had failed to win a majority for the first time in 28 years.

Mugabe, known for his fierce and defiant rhetoric, has not been seen in public since voting, despite speculation he would make a television address on Tuesday night.

Harare's U.N. ambassador said Mugabe had no intention of living outside Zimbabwe.

Asked by BBC television if he would go to another country to spend his retirement, Boniface Chidyausiku said:

"Robert Mugabe is Zimbabwean. Born, bred in Zimbabwe. He has lived his life to work for Zimbabwe. Why should he choose another country?"

In final results of the election for parliament's lower house, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won 99 seats. Mugabe's ZANU-PF won 97 seats and a breakaway MDC faction won 10. One independent candidate won a seat. The outcome of senate vote will be issued next.

No official results have emerged in the presidential vote.

But all the signs are that Mugabe, a liberation war leader still respected in Africa, is in the worst trouble of his rule after facing an unprecedented challenge in the elections.

Widely blamed for economic collapse of his once prosperous nation, Mugabe has faced growing discontent with the world's highest inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent, a virtually worthless currency and severe food and fuel shortages.

The opposition and international observers said Mugabe rigged the last presidential election in 2002. But some analysts say discontent over daily hardships is too great for him to fix the result this time without risking major unrest.

The mainstream MDC faction said its leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 50.3 percent of the presidential vote and Mugabe 43.8 percent according to its own tallies.



CALL FOR PATIENCE

Zimbabwe's state-run Herald newspaper said ZANU-PF and the MDC's Tsvangirai faction had agreed that their candidates or chief election agents would be present at the start of the presidential vote count once results come in from provinces.

"We therefore would like to urge the nation to remain patient as we go through this meticulous verification process," the newspaper's Web site quoted Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chief elections officer Lovemore Sekeramayi as saying.

Jonathan Moyo, Mugabe's former information minister and an independent parliament member, said authorities were not coping with defeat and chiefs of security forces, who have said they would not accept an opposition victory, were anxious.

"You have generals who unwisely, or rather foolishly, told the world that they would only salute one candidate, who happened to have lost the election," he told reporters.

MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said Tsvangirai had an absolute majority, enough for outright victory, but he would accept a second round runoff against Mugabe "under protest".

Analysts said the president was likely to be humiliated in a runoff and the parliamentary vote defeat would remove some of his power of patronage -- a plank of his long and iron rule.

Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said in a telephone interview with Sky television : "No one is panicking around President Mugabe. The army is very solidly behind our president, the police force as well."

Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, said the MDC was in contempt of the law by announcing results. "You are drifting in very dangerous territory and I hope the MDC is prepared for the consequences," he said.

The government appears to have been preparing the population for a runoff by revealing its own projections showing a second round would be required in the statutory three weeks after last Saturday's vote.

Both Tsvangirai and the government have dismissed widespread speculation that the MDC was negotiating with ZANU-PF for a managed exit for Mugabe, who has ruled uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1980.

Mugabe was unlikely to make a negotiated exit but go down fighting in the second round, analysts said.

"He is not the type that quietly walks away into the sunset," a senior Western diplomat said in Harare. (Additional reporting by Nelson Banya, Cris Chinaka, MacDonald Dzirutwe, Stella Mapenzauswa and Cris Chinaka, Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Michael Georgy) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com)




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