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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 April 2005, 22:11 GMT 23:11 UK
Zimbabwe's muted opposition
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Johannesburg

The British believe the Zimbabwe election result was "fundamentally flawed," the US says it was "seriously tainted", the opposition party calls it "massive fraud" and independent monitors say it has failed to meet regional guidelines for free and fair elections.

Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai has few options for challenging the election result

These guidelines were put in place by one of the few international opinions President Robert Mugabe seems to listen to, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

And SADC observers describe the election result as "peaceful, credible and well organised... reflecting the will of the people".

Their election observers, one of the few delegations invited into the country, were concerned by the 10% of voters turned away at the polling stations and the bias of the state media towards the ruling Zanu-PF party.

They even noted that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was claiming the figures did not add up and there was suspicion over 32 of the 120 seats contested - more than a quarter of all constituencies.

But in the end they delivered their statement of approval anyway, because the MDC could not present them with evidence in time.

Intimidation and the politicisation of food distribution were used to persuade citizens to vote for the ruling party
Zimbabwe Election Support Network
The courts can deal with any complaints, they said, as there is a procedure for appealing against the results.

But the MDC says it will not take the legal route. The appeals lodged after the last election have still not been processed by the courts.

So what can the MDC do now?

Questions

The party only took part in the elections begrudgingly, after saying the intimidation and restrictions meant this election would not be free and fair however peaceful it was on polling day.

FINAL RESULTS
Ballot boxes already counted in Zimbabwe
Zanu-PF: 78 seats
MDC: 41 seats
Independent: 1 seat
Elected seats: 120 seats
Seats appointed by the president: 30

It is the build-up to the poll that the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network highlights as the problem.

"Although there were no incidents of direct violence... the pre-election period was not in line with the SADC principles and guidelines," Chairman Reginald Matchaba-Hove said.

"Intimidation and the politicisation of food distribution were used to persuade citizens to vote for the ruling party."

The group cited the example of Manyame constituency, where the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said 14,812 people had cast their votes at the close of polling.

"The figure then suddenly catapulted to 23,760 as the results were announced... and the same applies to a number of other cases, so we urge the commission to seriously look into these discrepancies as they have serious implications for the credibility of the electoral process," Mr Matchaba-Hove said.

What now?

The MDC is currently assembling the evidence, but the SADC endorsement of the election - along with that of South Africa - means there is very little the opposition can do.

Morgan Tsvangirai's leadership is being questioned.

Cartoonist Tayo Fatunla's irreverent take on the voting in Zimbabwe

When he addressed the press as results were coming in on Friday, he offered no clear path - having accused the government of "fraudulently... betraying the people".

And there still seems little direction to the MDC's response.

Mr Tsvangirai's spokesman said the party had asked its president to "pursue a programme of political alternatives" - which seems to mean he has not decided what to do yet.

"I can tell you what he has ruled out," William Bango said.

"A legal challenge and an armed struggle - but we are not closing the door on mass demonstrations or protests."

Bad joke

It is hardly the call for the people to take to the streets peacefully that the outspoken Archbishop Pius Ncube was encouraging.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe has said he wants to change the constitution

The African Union observer mission was slightly more cautious about the election result - but President Mugabe now has all the cards, with a two-thirds majority.

He has made it clear he intends to change the constitution - most probably to introduce a second chamber, or senate. Perhaps he will even remove the need for the presidential election in 2007.

It is all part of the retirement plan, no doubt, even if President Mugabe did joke that he could stay in power until he is 100.

With the support he is getting from southern African countries, and the lack of options the opposition has to challenge the election result, it is a joke poor, hungry and unemployed Zimbabweans suffering under an appalling economic crisis could well take seriously.


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