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Riot police in Harare townships amid poll tensions

31/03/2008 - 21:44

By Cris Chinaka

HARARE (Reuters) - Riot police in armoured carriersdeployed in two of Harare's opposition strongholds on Mondaynight as suspicions grew that President Robert Mugabe wastrying to rig Zimbabwe's most important election sinceindependence.

A resident of one of the townships said a convoy of riotpolice in about 20 vehicles moved through the vast area. "Thereare a lot of patrols here," said the resident, adding peoplehad been told to stay off the normally teeming streets.

More than 48 hours after polls closed, only 66 of 210parliamentary constituencies had been declared, showing theruling ZANU-PF one seat ahead of the main opposition Movementfor Democratic Change (MDC). Two of President Robert Mugabe'sministers lost their seats.

No results have been announced for the presidential vote,in which Mugabe faces the most formidable political challengeof his 28 years in power.

The opposition has accused the veteran leader of delayingthe issuing of the results in a bid to steal the election,which Zimbabweans hoped would help rescue a country ravaged byan economic crisis.

"It is now clear that there is something fishy. The wholething is suspicious and totally unacceptable," MDC spokesmanNelson Chamisa said.

An independent Zimbabwean election monitoring groupforecast Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the largest faction ofthe MDC, would win the most votes in the presidential poll butnot by a big enough margin to avoid a second round.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said itsprojections giving him 49.4 percent were based on a randomsample of 435 polling stations across the country's 10provinces.

It predicted Mugabe would win 41.8 percent and rulingZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni would get 8.2 percent.

Seven European countries and the United States expressedconcern over the delay, and called on Zimbabwe's ElectoralCommission to quickly release the results, especially for thepresidential election.

Electoral Commission chairman George Chiweshe said the slowpace was due to the complexity of holding presidential,parliamentary and local polls together for the first time.

"FAIR AND CREDIBLE"

Mugabe, 84, is under unprecedented pressure from atwo-pronged attack by veteran MDC rival Tsvangirai and Makoni,who both blame him for Zimbabwe's ruin.

Zimbabweans are suffering the world's highest inflation ofmore than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel,and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steepdecline in life expectancy.

And although the odds seemed stacked against Mugabe, inpower since independence in 1980, analysts believe his irongrip on the country and solid backing from the armed forcescould enable him to ignore the results and declare victory.

He rejects vote-rigging allegations.

The U.S. State Department called on Zimbabwe's electoralcommission to put aside "partisan sympathies" and "follow theletter and spirit of the law".

Marwick Khumalo, head of an observer group from thePan-African parliament, said the elections themselves werefree, fair and credible overall.

But he added: "The mission is concerned that two days afterthe closure of the polls, the overall outcome of the electionsremains unknown."

Official results so far showed ZANU-PF with 31 seats, MDCwith 30 and a breakaway MDC faction with five.

The MDC said its tally showed it had won 96 parliamentaryconstituencies out of 128 counted. Makoni had 10 percent of theunofficial presidential vote count.

The MDC said unofficial tallies showed Tsvangirai had 60percent of the presidential vote, twice the total for Mugabe,with more than half the results counted. Private pollingorganisations also put Tsvangirai well ahead.

"In our view, as we stated before, we cannot see thenational trend changing. This means the people have spoken,they've spoken against the dictatorship," MDC Secretary-GeneralTendai Biti said.

In his first public comments since the vote, Makonicriticised the way results were being announced. "We are veryworried by the manner in which things are unfolding," he said.

Tsvangirai and some international observers accused Mugabeof stealing the last presidential election in 2002.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Public AffairsMinister Chen Chimutengwende both lost their seats.

The government has warned that any early victory claimwould be regarded as an attempted coup.

(Additional reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa, Nelson Banyaand Muchena Zigomo, Paul Taylor in Brussels, by TabassumZakaria in Washington and Adrian Croft in London; JamesMackenzie in Paris; editing by Michael Georgy and Mary Gabriel)


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