Zimbabwe opposition denies transition talks

Image: Zimbabweans look for election results .
A group of men read results for Zimbabwe's weekend presidential election in Mbere, a suburb of Harare, on Tuesday.Alexander Joe / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader insisted Tuesday that he has won presidential elections outright and wasn't negotiating to ease out President Robert Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe from liberation to ruin.

Morgan Tsvangirai said at his first news conference since Saturday's elections that he was waiting on an official announcement of election results before he would enter any discussions with Mugabe.

A businessman close to the state electoral commission and a lawyer close to the opposition said earlier that the two men's aides were negotiating a graceful exit for the country's leader of 28 years. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Several diplomats said they had heard similar reports of secret negotiations but could not confirm talks were under way.

"There are no discussions," Tsvangirai said. "Let's wait for ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) to complete its work, then we can discuss the circumstances that will affect the people."

Awaiting results
Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga also denied it, telling the British Broadcasting Corp. "There are no negotiations whatsoever, because we are waiting for the presidential results, so why do we need to hold any secret talks?"

Tensions rose as people stayed away from work to await results. A senior police officer, Wayne Bvudzijena, went on state radio to say: "Our forces are more than ready to deal with perpetrators of violence."

Paramilitary police have stepped up patrols in Harare and Bulawayo, the second city, and several roadblocks have been set up at strategic entries to the capital. The opposition has most of its support in urban centers.

Tsvangirai claimed to have won more than the 50 percent plus one vote needed for victory.

The businessman said Mugabe has been told that he is far behind Tsvangirai in preliminary results and that he might have to face a runoff. He said the prospect was too humiliating for Mugabe, and that was why the president was considering ceding power.

Results posted on doors
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of 38 Zimbabwe civil society organizations, said its random representative sample of polling stations showed Tsvangirai won just over 49 percent of the vote and Mugabe 42 percent. Simba Makoni, a former Mugabe loyalist, trailed at about 8 percent.

For the first time in this election, results were posted on the doors of the 9,000 polling stations in the country. This initiative, part of an agreement between the parties negotiated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, could make it more difficult to cheat, and allowed independent groups to compile their own tallies.

At the news conference, Tsvangirai spoke as if he already had been declared president:

"For years we have trod 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."

Martin Rupiya, a military analyst at South Africa's Institute for Strategic Studies and a former lieutenant-colonel in the Zimbabwe army, said he had heard of the military's involvement in negotiations for Mugabe to step down.

The election result "has compelled the military, the hawkish wing and the other moderate, to begin to reconsider accommodating the opposition," he said. "Because of the nature of the wins they have been forced to reassess."

Political analyst John Makumbe said he had learned from military sources that they would respect the results of the elections. The day before the elections, security chiefs had said they would not serve anybody but Mugabe and would not tolerate an opposition victory.

In Washington, the White House indicated it believed the opposition had won. "It's clear the people of Zimbabwe have voted for change," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. "It's time for the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission to confirm the results we have all seen from the local polling stations and respected NGOs."

The European Union said it wants Mugabe to step down to spare his nation political turmoil.

"If Mr. Mugabe continues, there will be a coup d'etat," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency. He said he hoped Mugabe "is on his way out."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the immediate release of election results.

The Electoral Commission has released results for 182 of the 210 parliamentary seats _ giving Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change 92 seats, including five for a breakaway faction, to 90 for Mugabe's ruling party. At least six Cabinet ministers have lost their seats, according to the official results.

The commission has offered no results in the presidential race.

Zimbabweans still fear that Mugabe may declare himself winner, as he has in previous elections that observers said were marked by rigging, violence and intimidation.

Contemplating defeat
Should he consider stepping down, he would have to weigh the concerns of those who have profited from his patronage, a group that includes top military leaders, party officials and business people. They receive mining concessions, construction contracts and preferential licenses to run transport companies and other businesses.

Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission, told South African radio Tuesday that leading members of Mugabe's party were contemplating defeat with trepidation.

"I was talking to some of the big wigs in the ruling party and they also are concerned about the possibility of a change of guard," Khumalo said. "ZANU-PF has actually been institutionalized in the lives of Zimbabweans, so it is not easy for anyone within the sphere of the ruling party to accept that 'Maybe we might be defeated or might have been defeated.'"

African officials allowed to observe the elections — Western delegations were barred — began leaving Zimbabwe this week. Khumalo said their mandate was to observe the process, not the results. His Pan-African Parliament mission and that of the Southern African Development Community said the elections were a credible and fair expression of the will of Zimbabweans, though they voiced some minor reservations.

Mugabe's high and lows  
At independence, Mugabe was hailed for his policies of racial reconciliation and development that brought education and health to millions who had been denied those services under colonial rule. Zimbabwe's economy thrived on exports of food, minerals and tobacco.

The unraveling began when Mugabe ordered the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly to return them to the landless black majority. Instead, Mugabe replaced a white elite with a black one, giving the farms to relatives, friends and cronies who allowed cultivated fields to be taken over by weeds.

Today, a third of the population depends on imported food handouts. Another third has fled the country as economic and political refugees and 80 percent is jobless. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 35 years and shortages of food, medicine, water, electricity and fuel are chronic.

The candidacy of former Mugabe loyalist Makoni drew open support from other leaders in the ruling party, bringing divisions among the elite into the open.