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Page last updated at 17:33 GMT, Sunday, 30 March 2008 18:33 UK

Delay adds to Zimbabwe fraud fears

By Joseph Winter
BBC News

The delay in announcing the results from Zimbabwe's general elections is raising fears that the outcome is being rigged.

MDC supporters celebrating
The MDC celebrations could prove premature

Counting began immediately after voting ended on Saturday night at some 9,000 polling stations around the country but Zimbabwe's population still do not know whether or not President Robert Mugabe will extend his 28 years in power.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) argues that the election was actually four different contests in one - president, Senate, House of Assembly and local councils - and so urges voters to be patient.

But around the country, voters can go to where they cast their ballots and see the results from that polling station, which were generally posted as early as Sunday morning.

They are asking why it takes so long to add up the results and announce them.

Surely in the 21st Century, adding up four lots of 9,000 results should not take more than a few hours?

Although Zimbabwe's economic crisis has not spared the election process - votes were counted by candlelight in some areas due to a lack of electricity.

'Frustrating'

"I have no doubt that the large part - if not all - results are known," Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observer team, told South Africa's SABC TV.

We just hope and pray that the army doesn't do something stupid
Denford Magora
Independent candidate's spokesman
He said the delay was "frustrating" and risked "upsetting a very peaceful electoral process".

"The regime is at a loss and it is taking its time deliberately," said opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Secretary General Tendai Biti.

The fears of rigging are also grounded in what happened in Kenya's elections last December.

There, it took three days for the local election commission to announce the results.

Elections observers in Kenya said the declared results were often different from those posted outside polling stations - and the discrepancies generally favoured the incumbent, who was announced the winner.

This led to opposition protests and some 1,500 deaths.

'Havoc'

"The delay is a worry - people are afraid," Denford Magora, a spokesman for independent presidential candidate Simba Makoni told the BBC News website.

ZIMBABWE POLLS - KEY FACTS
Some 5.9m eligible voters
They elect president, parliament and local government
Nearly 9,000 polling stations
Winner needs more than 50% to avoid presidential run-off

"We just hope and pray that the army doesn't do something stupid."

The MDC has cranked up the tension by announcing that they are in the lead - a move the government has condemned as "causing unnecessary havoc".

The MDC bases their announcements on results that their polling agents have texted to party headquarters, where they have done the sums themselves.

Most interestingly, they say they are winning not just in their urban strongholds but also in rural areas which have previously voted for President Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party.

Contributors to the BBC around the country who have visited polling stations in their areas agree that the MDC has done well, as does Mr Magora.

"The MDC has swept the board - ministers are falling like flies," he said.

While Mr Magora's candidate is fighting against Mr Mugabe, he comes from Zanu-PF, several of whose parliamentary candidates are believed to back his campaign. So he is fairly impartial in the parliamentary race.

Rescued

Some opposition activists have already started celebrating, only to be dispersed by police in the second city of Bulawayo.

And the opposition jubilation is certainly premature.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe voting on 29 March 2008
If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it is time to leave politics
Robert Mugabe

Until the official results are announced by the ZEC, Zimbabwe's future direction remains up in the air.

ZEC chairman George Chiweshe had to be rescued by security officials from journalists and opposition supporters demanding results on Sunday.

"This has been a more complicated election. We will be releasing the results as soon as we can," he promised.

The vote itself was generally peaceful and the major concern on the day seemed to be the large numbers of people turned away from polling stations.

Ashley (not his real name) in Harare, told the BBC that he had registered to vote but when he turned up to cast his ballot, his name was not on the voters' roll.

He suspects that young people's names were deliberately removed, as they are likely to support the opposition.

But Rindai Chipfunde from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which had some 8,000 observers during the election, told the BBC that these problems seemed to stem from a lack of voter education, rather than systematic fraud.

What next?

Mr Mugabe himself strongly denied any plans to rig the polls.

People looking at election results
Zimbabweans have been looking at results posted at polling stations

"I cannot sleep with a clear conscience if there is any cheating," he said after voting and promised to respect the results.

"If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it is time to leave politics."

If the MDC is right about how the vote went, the president and his allies are no doubt currently deciding whether or not to live up to those grand words.

Giving up and going quietly would be out of character for the veteran nationalist, who ran his campaign on the slogan "Behind the Fist".

Another scenario would be for the fist to hit back, declare victory and use the security forces to stamp out any opposition protests - as they have in the past.

This option obviously relies on the loyalty of the military - some of whom are reported to be sympathetic to Mr Makoni.

A third, compromise solution would be for the ZEC to announce that no candidate has won more than the 50% of the vote required for victory and for a run-off to be held in three weeks' time.


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