Zimbabwe votes : early opposition victory

Reading time 6 min.

Zimbabweans main opposition Movement for Democratic Change on Saturday night claimed victory in the country’s bitterly contested presidential and parliamentary elections setting the stage for a possible showdown with President Robert Mugabe and the ruling Zanu-PF party.

By Alec Russell, Southern Africa Correspondent

In a press conference at 1.30 am on Sunday morning Zimbabwe time Tendai Biti, the secretary general of the larger of the two wings of the MDC, said that preliminary results showed sweeping margins of victory across the country, even in Zanu-PF’s traditional heartland. ”We’ve won this election,” he said. ”We must savour these scenes as for the rest of our lives we’ll say we were there.”

The announcement paves the way for a period of high tension in Zimbabwe. Last week the national police chief indicated that the government would not accept results except from the body overseeing the election, which is widely perceived as sympathetic to Zanu-PF.

There was no response early this morning from the election authorities.

Mr Biti said that his wing of the MDC, which is led by Morgan Tsvangirai, had won 65 percent of the vote in the first two constituencies in Mashonaland Central a traditional Mugabe stronghold, to 31 percent for Zanu-PF. Simba Makoni, a former finance minister challenging for the presidency, trailed on 4 percent, he said.

He claimed similar margins of victory in the first few constituencies tallied in other regions usually dominated by Zanu-PF, and also comfortable victories in the western region of Matabeleland an opposition stronghold. ”In our view the trend is irreversible. We can’t possibly see a reversal of these trends,” he said.

The MDC’s claim of victory was based on its own results from only a small percentage of the constituencies but was clearly aimed at forestalling an official declaration of victory by Mr Mugabe. The MDC believes it won the last presidential election in 2002 but that they were cheated of victory at the count.

Earlier in an atmosphere of world-weariness, nervous excitement from the opposition and defiance from the ruling party, Zimbabweans lined up to vote in polls that posed the toughest electoral challenge for Mr Mugabe in his 28 years in power.

As the polls closed early Saturday evening the indications were that the process had been broadly smooth. Monitors said there were relatively few reports of people being unable to cast their vote, unlike in the last presidential election in 2002 when deliberate obstruction from the authorities denied large numbers of opposition supporters the chance to vote.

But election monitors gave warning that the critical test of the electoral system would come only once the count started amid widespread concern from the opposition that Mr Mugabe’s supporters would resort to any means possible to ensure he was returned to office for a sixth term.

His two challengers, Mr Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, a former finance minister, have sought to capitalise on the dramatic implosion of the economy in the last decade to persuade Zimbabweans it is time to abandon the veteran 84 year-old autocrat.

With inflation anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 percent there is a palpable sense of desperation across the country even in traditional strongholds for the ruling Zanu-PF party. Opposition supporters say that in the wake of three flawed elections in the last eight years they will not accept a Mugabe victory if there is any dispute over the results. But the state security chiefs have vowed a crackdown on protesters and yesterday deployed large numbers of policemen across the country, including at every major intersection in the capital Harare.

As he voted at a primary school, Mr Mugabe who has campaigned as a saviour of Zimbabweans from “the colonial” and “imperial” forces he says back the opposition, insisted that he was interested only in a free and fair vote.

“We do not rig elections. We have that sense of honesty. I cannot sleep with my conscience if I have cheated in elections,” he said. “Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us. The moment the people stop supporting you, then that’s the moment you should quit politics.”

The winner needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off in three weeks. Opposition supporters expect their two candidates to join forces in the event of a second round and are quietly confident that Mr Mugabe would be so weakened by his failure to get a majority in the first round that his support base would then collapse. The former liberation leader who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 dismissed the prospect of a second round. “We are not used to boxing matches where we go from round one to round two. We just knock each other out,” he said. “That’s how we have done it in the past. That’s how we will do it this time.”

Monitors reported that voters were waiting outside many polling stations from before dawn, two hours before they opened. “We must have change, “said a 21 year-old man who was walking 12 kilometres across Harare after casting his vote as he did not have enough money for a bus fare. “Everyone is in the mood for change.”

The voters’ roll for Saturday’s harmonised presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections, computes the electorate at nearly six million. But given that large numbers of Zimbabweans have fled across the border to South Africa in search of work, and opposition estimates that the roll is wildly inaccurate, there are no reliable estimates for the likely number of voters.

Noel Kututwa, the chairman of the Zimbabwe election Support Network, an independent body that is monitoring the elections, gave yesterday’s proceedings a relatively clean bill of health. But he added that the greatest potential for vote rigging would come during the count. “As in past elections there are very few problems on voting day,” he said. “The problem comes with issues of counting and tabulation. We will wait and see how that happens after the polls close.”

Final results are not expected until Sunday morning at the earliest amid some predictions that it could be delayed until Monday.
Most analysts argue that the authorities have over the last year ensured that the electoral landscape was heavily tilted in the president’s favour. If he does win another term business people fear that the country’s economic and social implosion will accelerate.

In the latest stark insight into the collapse of the country’s infrastructure, the British charity, Save the Children said last week that the number of Zimbabwean children who die before their fifth birthday has more than doubled from 59 per 1,000 births in 1989 to 123 per 1,000 in 2004.

The Financial Times

International  International news in general
Support Follow Afrik-News on Google News