HARARE, ZIMBABWE — HARARE, Zimbabwe - In a defeat for President Robert Mugabe's one-party government, which has held a firm grip on power since independence from white rule 20 years ago, a new opposition party appeared poised last night to win a significant number of seats in parliamentary elections.
The Movement for Democratic Change, a 10-month-old party of trade union members and academics, won a total of 30 out of 62, many by margins of more than 80 percent, as results trickled in early this morning.
Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, which before the election controlled all but three of 150 seats in Parliament, was running just ahead with 32 seats, primarily in the rural districts that have long been viewed as ruling party strongholds.
Police were deployed throughout the country yesterday to curb any outbreaks of violence.
The campaign season was marred by political killings, beatings, rapes and other forms of intimidation.
Appearing on state television last night, police commissioner Augustine Chihuri appealed for calm as Zimbabweans learned of the results, warning that any violence would not be tolerated.
"Whichever way it may go, for those who do not accept the verdict the law enforcement agencies and police will ensure that the people are forced to accept the outcome," he said in a nationwide broadcast.
"It is my appeal that people should be level-headed."
In two days of voting that ended Sunday night, more than 3 million of the country's 5.1 million registered voters went to the polls, nearly double the number that voted in 1995 parliamentary elections.
Opposition party leader Morgan Tsvangirai called the large turnout a show of support for a country demanding change.
The election comes as the country faces more than 50 percent unemployment, 60 percent inflation and shortages of medical care and fuel.
The MDC has blamed the country's problems on a government it says is corrupt and unwilling to address the needs of its citizens.
"Southern Africa now needs to take collective responsibility to ensure that President Robert Mugabe respects an MDC parliamentary victory," Tsvangirai said yesterday.
"The people of Zimbabwe have defied violence, intimidation and measures in the electoral system designed to hamper the right to vote."
ZANU-PF leaders, who have blamed the violence on the opposition, have said voters went to the polls with renewed enthusiasm for a party that has promised to take back white-owned farmland for black peasants.
Ruling party headquarters declined last night to comment on the early results.
No change in government
Whatever the outcome of the elections, Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party will form the next government, a senior government official has predicted.
John Nkomo, local government minister and national chairman of the ruling party, told a news conference Sunday:
"We wish to make it clear that the media reports suggesting that these elections might lead to a change of government are more than wild."
Mugabe is not up for re-election until 2002 and controls appointments of ministers in government.
There are 120 seats being contested in the parliamentary election. The remaining 30 members are picked by Mugabe.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would have to win at least 76 seats in this election for it to take over control of the parliament.
Although the two days of voting were peaceful, there were many accusations from the opposition of intimidation at polling stations.
In the first independent analysis of the political situation in Zimbabwe yesterday, European Union election observers condemned the violence and intimidation that characterized the months leading up to the election.
They concluded that there were serious flaws and failures in the electoral process.
Government election administrators "undermined" the ability of election monitors to carry out their work, said Pierre Schori, head of the EU Election Observation Mission.
"The EU Election Observation Mission reached the conclusion that this was not due to administrative incompetence, but to a deliberate attempt to reduce the effectiveness of independent monitoring of the election," Schori said.
"High levels of violence and intimidation and coercion marred the election campaign," he said.
"ZANU-PF leaders seemed to sanction the use of violence and intimidation against political opponents and contributed significantly to the climate of fear so evident during the election campaign. ... Overall, the conduct of the government has failed to uphold the rule of law and compromised law enforcement agencies."
Call for rule of law
MDC members also participated in violence and intimidation but were much less reponsible, the mission concluded.
Schori said the government must uphold the rule of law in the days following the release of election results, placing the responsibly with Mugabe.
"With high authority comes high responsibility," he said.
"The president of Zimbabwe will have to play a crucial role in the post-election phase."