HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe began a partial recount of votes from March 29 elections on Saturday, despite opposition efforts to block it and widespread fears that political stalemate could erupt into violence.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, accused of treason by the government, said in Johannesburg he feared being attacked or imprisoned if he returned to Zimbabwe.
The recount in 23 of 210 constituencies could overturn the results of the parliamentary election, which showed President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF losing its majority to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change for the first time.
ZANU-PF lost 16 of those 23 constituencies in the original count, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said. The ruling party needs to win nine more seats for a simple majority in parliament.
Results of a parallel presidential ballot have not been released but Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, says he won it.
“The vote recounting process has started, and it’s going to be a thorough exercise. We expect it to take about three days,” a Zimbabwe Electoral Commission official told Reuters.
There have been concerns in the West and among the opposition that Mugabe is trying to rig the results and the MDC has said it will not accept the recount.
“We reject the process. We reject the outcome of this flawed process,” MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said. “As far as the MDC is concerned, the first results stand. Anything else will be an illegitimate process.”
Tsvangirai, who left Zimbabwe earlier this month, said he would return but first wanted to gather international support.
“It is no use going back to Zimbabwe and become captive. Then you are not effective. What can you do?”, he told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “Do you want a dead hero?”
Both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have urged African states to take more action to end the post-election deadlock in Zimbabwe.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who helped achieve a power-sharing deal to end a post-election crisis in Kenya, issued a similar call on Saturday.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would discuss Zimbabwe with African leaders at a U.N. trade and development conference in Ghana which starts on Sunday.
“In the next few days I will be discussing with President (John) Kufuor (of Ghana) and other African leaders who will be in Accra ... the issue about Zimbabwe and how to get developments there back to normal,” Ban told reporters.
A South African-led team from the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) is observing the recount. The SADC called last weekend for the outcome to be announced quickly, but African reaction has been muted.
A Reuters correspondent at one of the counting stations — in the rural district of Domboshava about 30 km (20 miles) north of Harare — said SADC observers and diplomats were present to witness the vote recount.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena told the state-controlled Herald newspaper petrol bombs were thrown at offices where ballot boxes for three constituencies in the Gutu rural district were stored early on Friday, but all failed to explode.
ZANU-PF triggered the recount after it accused election officials of taking bribes to undercount votes for Mugabe and his ruling party and committing other electoral fraud. Several election officials have been arrested.
Harare’s High Court rejected an MDC application to block the recount on Friday. The court previously denied its request to force authorities to release the presidential election result.
Opponents accuse Mugabe, 84, of wrecking his once-prosperous country, where the collapse of the economy and inflation of about 165,000 percent have led to chronic shortages of water, food and fuel, and 80 percent unemployment.
The delay in announcing results has given rise to opposition fears the recount could be a government ploy to steal the election.
“Clearly these guys have tampered with the boxes. They can’t deny that,” the MDC’s Chamisa said. “How do you expect us to have confidence in the process?”
Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has brushed aside criticism from London, Washington and opponents at home and is preparing for an expected run-off against Tsvangirai.
The MDC has accused the former guerrilla commander of unleashing loyal militias to help him rig victory in the runoff and allowing veterans of the independence war to invade some farms, echoing a wave of land invasions that began in 2000.
Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe and Cris Chinaka, Katie Nguyen in Nairobi and Renato Andrade in Toronto; writing by Caroline Drees; editing by Elizabeth Piper