Mugabe apparently faces major defeat in Zimbabwe

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

Tension was high in the capital, 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% of the vote counted, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, had 55% of the vote. Mugabe, 84, had 36% and ruling party defector Simba Makoni had 9%, it said.

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

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.

The MDC 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.

“The results coming in show that in our traditional strongholds we are massacring them. 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. “We must savor these scenes, as for the rest of our lives we’ll say we were there.”

A chirpy state television bulletin Sunday night announced that Zimbabwe Election Commission officials were “verifying” results before broadcasting interviews across the country 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 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.”