Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 31, 2008
CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe, March 30 -- A sheet of blue paper hanging on the notice board of a drab community hall told the tale of a remarkable upset:
President Robert Mugabe: 3,066 votes.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai: 8,154 votes.
For 28 years, Chinhoyi was part of Mugabe's hammerlock on rural Mashonaland, a region where his outsize victories helped balance out his eroding support in Zimbabwe's major cities. But evidence abounded Sunday that this pattern had collapsed across the nation, leaving Mugabe vulnerable to a historic defeat.
The electoral commission remained silent more than 24 hours after polls closed, but Zimbabweans took it upon themselves to tabulate results on pieces of paper gradually appearing outside 9,000 polling stations across the country.
The growing mosaic of information, though informally collected, suggested Mugabe was decisively trailing Tsvangirai. The opposition party claimed it was a landslide.
It remained far from clear whether Mugabe, 84, would step down or whether the results officially announced by an electoral commission controlled by his cronies would show anything but a Mugabe victory. But any rigging mechanisms have been undermined by the decision, for the first time in Zimbabwe, to post the results at polling stations.
"The results are there for everybody to see. People are going from station to station copying the results," said John Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe political analyst and longtime critic of Mugabe. "It will be very difficult to manipulate them and say that the result at the polling station was wrong."
Despite 100,000 percent inflation, 80 percent unemployment and chronic food shortages, few analysts a week ago were predicting a victory for Tsvangirai, 56, a former trade unionist whose opposition party lost elections in 2000, 2002 and 2005. As recently as last month, some picked him to come in third, behind former Mugabe finance minister Simba Makoni, 58, running as an independent.
But the final days before Saturday's vote revealed a powerful surge of enthusiasm for Tsvangirai as Mugabe and Makoni faltered. Political discussion shifted from guessing which candidate would get the most votes to a debate over how Mugabe would react to a Tsvangirai victory.
On Sunday, reports of upsets spread across Zimbabwe with remarkable speed for a country where public transport is beyond the means of most people and cellphone networks are so beleaguered that perhaps one call in 20 is successful. Tallies assembled by Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and others showed that several of Mugabe's most senior cabinet ministers had lost their seats in parliament.
The opposition claimed victory for Tsvangirai at 1 a.m. Sunday based on partial results. By 11 a.m., the posted results made the trend clearer. The party's secretary general, Tendai Biti, announced, "We have won."
Anything less than a decisive majority would require a runoff between the top two finishers, probably on April 19.
Electoral officials warned Sunday that they alone were empowered to release results, then failed to give any. Rumors spread of possible military action to protect Mugabe's power. Trucks of riot police and armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers appeared.
As confusion grew, the clearest development was that Mugabe had lost his capacity to churn out massively one-sided results in rural areas.
The polling station closest to his family home, in Kutama, showed Mugabe with 203 votes and Tsvangirai with 20. A few miles down the road, in the army garrison town of Darwendale -- the same electoral district as Mugabe's home -- his edge was narrower, 264 to 147. Adding in the 45 votes for Makoni, Mugabe's support was 58 percent in an area where he once produced massive landslides.
With each few miles farther from Mugabe's house, more and more posters for Tsvangirai, Makoni and opposition candidates for parliament appeared. In Chinhoyi, they dramatically outnumbered the posters of Mugabe looking stern and waving his right fist in the symbol of his ruling party.
At a primary school near Chinhoyi's modest downtown, voters wandered by to check the results hanging on a window. The split was even wider there than in the town as a whole: 75 votes for Tsvangirai, 15 for Mugabe and 10 for Makoni. The opposition had never before won an election in Chinhoyi, capital of Mugabe's home province, Mashonaland West.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun slipped toward the horizon, a couple of friends glanced up at the sheet before giving a furtive cheer. Despite the results, a heavy police presence and a legacy of political violence left many in Chinhoyi skittish.
"We want change," said Tapiwa Chigango, 26, an auto mechanic. "The situation is different than 2005," when Zimbabweans last voted.
Unlike in urban areas, where frustration is running high as the opposition worries that a victory could be stolen, Chinhoyi's voters showed little enthusiasm for the idea of protesting if Mugabe is declared the winner.
"They will beat people," said Chigango's friend, Tapiwanashe Chigunwe, 21, who is unemployed.
Chigango added, "Those guys with black boots, they will hit you. So to keep my body safe, I will stay inside."
Most people here were reluctant to have their names appear in a newspaper because they fear retaliation.
"Now we are happy," said a 45-year-old woman who has lived in Zimbabwe her entire life but was not allowed to vote because her parents were born in neighboring Malawi. "Maybe this time the thing will change."
Outside another polling station in Chinhoyi, a 38-year-old law student marveled that the results were available for all to see. "In the past it was hidden. You couldn't see what was on the ground," the student said. "Now you know."