Zimbabwe state-run paper predicts a runoff

Posted in Africa | 02-Apr-08 | Author: Barry Bearak| Source: International Herald Tribune

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe speaking at a news conference in Harare on Tuesday. Thokozile Khupe, left, the party's deputy president.

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe's state-run newspaper, The Herald, reported Wednesday morning that "the pattern of results in the presidential election shows that none of the candidates will garner more than 50% of the vote, forcing a re-run."

The newspaper published no actual election results from Saturday's vote and attributed its conclusion to analysts. But the report is likely to be perceived as a decision by President Robert Mugabe and his key aides to continue his fight to hold on to the presidency rather than yield it to the challenger Morgan Tsvangirai.

Earlier this week, with unofficial results showing Mugabe behind, close advisers to the president were split about whether he should concede or force a second vote, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the talks. Members of Mugabe's inner circle were said to be in talks with Tsvangirai.

A Zimbabwean businessman with close links to the governing party, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the nation's military and intelligence chiefs discussed several options with the president after the vote appeared to go badly. These included the outright rigging of the election, going to a runoff and even the "elimination" of Tsvangirai.

Mugabe was even willing to step down, the businessman said, but some of his advisers thought a runoff could be won if the government used every effort to get more votes from rural areas where the president has traditionally been strongest.

By law, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the ballots, a second round of voting must take place within 21 days between the two top candidates. That interregnum, if it occurs, could allow the governing party to use some of the same violent tactics it has used in the past against the opposition, tactics rarely employed in the most recent vote. On the other hand, the three-week campaign could allow for further talks that might pave the way for the 84-year-old president to make a graceful exit.

The country's election commission has now gone nearly four days without releasing any results from the presidential election; the only announcements it has made are about seats for Parliament. The Herald said that "the two parties were likely to win between 96 and 99 House of Assembly seats each." There are 210 Parliament seats.

Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has promised to release its own final tally on Wednesday. The vote count at each polling station was posted, and party workers took photos of every result and have been computing the total.

This posting of results was negotiated between the parties this past year and was meant to prevent rigging. Tsvangirai has charged that the 2002 election was stolen from him, something that many independent observers agree with.

Based on more than half the votes it had counted, the MDC earlier this week claimed that it was ahead by a margin of 60 percent to 30 percent. A projection based on a random sample of polling stations by an independent civic group ? the Zimbabwe Election Support network ? predicted that Tsvangirai would get about 49.4 percent of the vote and Mugabe 41.8 percent.

A runoff would place the independent candidate Simba Makoni in a pivotal role. His vote was expected to be in the range of 8 to 10 percent.

Makoni, the nation's former finance minister, broke with the governing party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, in order to run against his former boss. His criticisms of Mugabe grew increasingly harsh as the campaign went on.

According to a Western diplomat, Mugabe was at first reluctant to agree to a runoff. He is one of the world's most enduring political leaders. He reportedly considered a runoff to be humiliation, the diplomat said.

A resignation by Mugabe would have been a stunning turnabout in a country where he has been accused of consistently manipulating election results to maintain his 28-year lock on power.

Mugabe has not been seen in public since the election. Neither had Tsvangirai until Tuesday evening when he spoke to reporters and diplomats at a Harare hotel, sounding certain he had won the presidency and striving to seem presidential.

"For years, we have traveled a journey of hunger, pain, torture and brutality," he said. Today we face a new challenge of governing and rehabilitating our beloved country, the challenge of giving birth to a new Zimbabwe founded on restoration not retribution, on love not war."

He denied rampant reports that he or his advisers were in talks with the governing party about a transition of power. He said he "would not enter into any deal" before the votes were officially announced.

Many Zimbabweans have known no other leader except Mugabe. He was a hero of the nation's independence struggle against white minority rule, and he was hailed during his early years in power for policies of racial conciliation and the health and education advances he had brought to those denied them under colonial rule.

But Mugabe has also been a ruthless autocrat who has unleashed campaigns of murder and terror against his opponents, analysts and critics contend.

In 2000, he ordered the takeover of white-owned farms, a decision that cast Zimbabwe into an economic free fall that seems to have no end. Inflation now runs at 100,000 percent.

About a quarter of the population has fled. Most of those remaining behind are unemployed. Zimbabwe is a paradigm of destitution.

"People are dying for change," said Mark Tichagarika, a driver in Harare. "Everyone is talking about the election, at work, in the bus queues, in the shops. When will we finally get a change?"

He considered his own question. "Only the old man knows."

It is unclear how Zimbabweans would react to news of a runoff, if that turns out to be the result of the official vote count.

Certainly in Harare, where the president is unpopular, such news would seem the precursor to another stolen election. On Wednesday, parts of the capital were littered with white leaflets saying "Morgan Tsvangirai is our new president!! Freedom at last!"

The leaflet said, "The thieves are working overtime to steal our votes," adding "Stay on the streets and get ready for JAMBANJA," the Shona word for violence.