JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's political party is facing a massive defeat in an election that local observers say was rigged -- and now faces a familiar problem.
Neither have two other options: challenging the result in courts or appealing to regional leaders for support.
Party leaders met Friday in the capital Harare to discuss their options. The MDC, which has eschewed the path of political violence or revolution, is finding that dislodging an autocrat as determined as Mugabe is almost impossible. The 89-year-old has ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from Britain 33 years ago.
No final official tally has been released, but Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is far ahead as Zimbabwe Electoral Commission results dribbled in.
By late Friday, ZANU-PF had won 142 of the 180 seats declared out of a total 210, ensuring that it has two-thirds majority.
This would enable it to unravel many of the changes introduced in a new constitution approved in a March referendum. That constitution, which comes takes effect once the next president is sworn in, will limit a president to two five-year terms.
If Tsvangirai was hoping for moral support from regional leaders, the African Union and Southern African Development Community observers left little hope of that Friday. They expressed muted concerns about aspects of the vote, stopping well short of condemning it, and urged Tsvangirai to either accept the result or challenge it in court.
The African Union preliminary report pointed to concerns about the voter rolls, the large number of voters turned away and the large numbers assisted by police and other officials, a practice it said could prevent people voting freely.
But AU mission chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian military leader and civilian president, said the irregularities wouldn't affect the result.
SADC observers Friday described the election as free and peaceful, adding that it was premature to state whether it was fair. The findings of the two outside groups contrasted with those of the largest local observer group, the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, which deployed 7,000 observers.
It said Thursday that the election was severely compromised, and that 1 million voters were disenfranchised. Tsvangirai described the election as a farce.
Some prominent Africans were embarrassed by the failure of regional leaders to condemn what many saw as a blatantly stolen election.
Tito Mboweni, former governor of South Africa's Reserve Bank, expressed his dismay on Twitter: "Democracy equals a political expression of the will of the people. Do African leaders know what this is? Today, I am ashamed to be an African."
The MDC had struggled to delay the election, arguing that the political reforms that were supposed to take place under a deal between it and Mugabe's party after the last disputed election in 2008 were never implemented.The U.S. maintains sanctions against Mugabe and other senior ZANU-PF officials. In March, the European Union dropped most of its sanctions, prompting critics to say it should have waited until the election was held.