'On the edge of a precipice'

HARARE - Senior figures in Zimbabwe's Opposition were in hiding yesterday as a tremendous power struggle played out in the wake of elections in which President Robert Mugabe's Government appeared to have been defeated.

Official results from the state-appointed electoral commission continued to be issued with almost theatrical slowness, as factions within the ruling party and the security apparatus scrambled for any alternative to conceding defeat.

In the absence of official confirmation, the Opposition Movement for Democratic Change claimed to have won a landslide and declared its leader Morgan Tsvangirai an outright winner in the presidential contest.

MDC spokesman Tendai Biti warned Mugabe's Government against stealing the election, saying: "Zimbabwe is on the edge of a precipice".

He said the people would not accept a faked outcome and vowed "peaceful protests" if his party was denied the win. Yesterday, riot police in armoured carriers patrolled two of Harare's opposition strongholds.

A resident of one of the townships said a convoy of riot police in about 20 vehicles moved through the vast area. "There are a lot of patrols here," said the resident, adding people had been told to stay off the streets.

It took the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission 24 hours to release results for just 109 parliamentary seats - giving the MDC 51 to 53 for Mugabe's Zanu-PF, with five seats going to a breakaway faction of Tsvangirai's party. The commission offered no results in the presidential race.

An independent observer, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network said yesterday that according to its random representative sample of polling stations across the country, Tsvangirai won just over 49 per cent of the vote. A presidential candidate needs at least 50 per cent plus one vote to avoid a runoff.

Mugabe was projected to come in second with about 42 per cent, and Simba Makoni, a former Mugabe loyalist, trailed at about 8 per cent.

The network groups 38 Zimbabwe civil society organisations. It said it based its projections on tallies posted at a random sample of 435 polling stations in Zimbabwe's 10 provinces, and that its work was reviewed by an independent statistician.

Tsvangirai's party said he was leading the presidential race with 60 per cent of votes, based on counts reported from 128 of the country's 210 parliamentary districts. It gave Mugabe 30 per cent of the votes and the rest to Makoni.

A cabal of Mugabe's top aides, including six Cabinet ministers, the vice-president and a former intelligence chief, are thought to have lost their "safe" seats already.

Two constituencies awarded to Zanu-PF contradict results taken from the polling stations in those areas and seen by the Independent.

For the first time this year all results have been published at individual polling stations, so any poll numbers announced centrally that don't add up will be identifiable. The Mugabe regime insisted on tallying presidential votes at one central location in a bid to circumvent this problem, but photographs of results at individual polling stations have been collected by independent observers and the MDC in case of fraud.

Tsvangirai, along with Makoni, met security chiefs in Harare yesterday, according to unnamed officials close to the meeting. Despite optimism that a deal would be reached involving immunity for Mugabe and a lengthy transition period, there was no agreement.

The Guardian reported that Tsvangirai has approached the former army chief, Solomon Mujuru, to reassure the military that it has nothing to fear from a transition of power.

The leaders of the armed forces, police and prison service warned prior to the elections that they would refuse to recognise an Opposition victory. With neither Tsvangirai nor Mugabe seen in public since Sunday, the country has been gripped by fear and uncertainty. Mugabe had, according to one rumour, left the country, but there has been no confirmation of this.

The Guardian reported that a crisis meeting of Mugabe's security Cabinet decided to block the Opposition from taking power but was divided between using a military takeover and falsifying the results.

The newspaper said diplomatic and Zimbabwean sources who heard first-hand accounts of the meeting of senior military and intelligence officers and top party officials said Mugabe wanted to declare himself President again but was persuaded to use the electoral commission to keep the opposition from power.

"It was decided to use the [election commission] process of drip, drip where you release results over a long period, giving the opposition gains at first but as time wears on Zanu-PF pulls ahead," a source told the Guardian.

The Times also reported on the meeting, confirming that options included declaring victory, stopping the count or declaring martial law. The newspaper's sources, which included a former Zanu-PF member and an MDC official, said that the Joint Operations Command failed to agree on a course of action and instead decided to delay the results to buy more time.

Yesterday, tension swept the capital, where phone lines were largely jammed, forcing people to communicate by text. One senior MDC official, a former shadow minister, said: "We were warned by an insider that they were getting the guns out. We've been through this before, but every time you get a dry taste in the back of your throat." Several opposition officials have moved to safe houses.

- INDEPENDENT, REUTERS, AP

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