Zimbabwe opposition claims lead

The Baltimore Sun

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- The main opposition party and independent observers said yesterday that President Robert G. Mugabe was suffering a resounding defeat as election results were tallied, but no official returns were released and the capital was rife with speculation that they were being rigged.

Tension was high in Harare, with police deployed on most corners as the delay in announcing results from Saturday's balloting wore on. Usually, the first official results are released within hours of the polls closing.

There were unconfirmed reports that key ministers and Mugabe loyalists lost their seats in parliament.

In a briefing to diplomats, independent election observers said that with 66 percent of the vote counted, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, had 55 percent of the vote. Mugabe, 84, had 36 percent, and ruling-party defector Simba Makoni had 9 percent, it said.

Tsvangirai's party said that with 12 percent of the polling stations reporting, he was winning 67 percent.

The estimate was based on figures posted at individual polling stations after election officials had signed off on them, the first time such counts have been posted under recent reforms to election law.

"The wave of change was too strong," said one shocked official of the ruling ZANU-PF, who lost his seat. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said conditions were extremely tense, with speculation rife in the ruling party that the military might step in to back Mugabe and block the opposition from taking power.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the Middle East for peace talks, branded Zimbabwe's president a "disgrace" to his people and to Africa yesterday, and expressed concerns about verifying whether the country held free and fair elections.

"We've made very clear our concerns about how this election might be conducted, given the very bad record of Mugabe concerning his people, the opposition and the region," Rice told reporters after meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change defied government warnings that any early claim of victory would be considered an attempted coup.

"We've won this election," said an exhausted Tendai Biti, MDC secretary-general, who had been up all night as MDC representatives sent in their results.

"In Mugabe's traditional strongholds, they are doing very badly. There is no way Mugabe can claim victory unless it is through fraud. He has lost this election," Biti said.

Last night, a chirpy state television bulletin announced that Zimbabwe Election Commission officials were "verifying" results before broadcasting interviews on how smooth and peaceful the elections had been.

It was equally quiet at the ZEC "command center," where results are normally posted. One independent observer who visited the center said there were just a few people sitting around reading the paper.

Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an independent monitoring group, said the delay in results created tension and speculation, and he called on the ZEC to release the results.

"The issue of the delay of the announcement of the results raises tension, which is why we are saying the ZEC should release these results as quickly as possible," he said. "Clearly the delay is fueling speculation that something might be going on."

Zimbabwe had barred observers traveling from the United States and the European Union and several international news media organizations. The State Department said Friday that the United States would field almost a dozen poll watchers for the elections and would report afterward on the electoral process and the results.

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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