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Mugabe Hanging On as Party Loses Grip on Parliament

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is officially sworn in as president after a sharply criticized runoff vote that was boycotted by his only rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 3, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe, April 2 -- President Robert Mugabe's ruling party lost control of parliament to opposition forces in elections Saturday, according to results released Wednesday. The defeat marked the first time a party other than Mugabe's has taken control of a branch of government and to many Zimbabweans appeared to foreshadow the president's fall after 28 years in power.

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Results of the presidential race remained veiled for the fourth day since the elections. But the opposition, independent election monitors and some ruling party officials, speaking privately, have said that Mugabe lost by a clear margin to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

That split may not have been wide enough to avoid a runoff, which is triggered automatically if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. By several credible accounts, Tsvangirai had slightly more than 49 percent to Mugabe's 43 percent. Simba Makoni, an independent candidate, had 7 percent.

A runoff, which both sides have acknowledged may be necessary, would by law have to be held by April 19.

The parliamentary results, meanwhile, showed Tsvangirai's party and allies with 109 seats, compared with 97 for Mugabe's party in the lower house, which has 210 seats.

Results for the Senate, local government councils and the presidency remained unannounced. But the options available to Mugabe appeared to be dwindling rapidly with his party's loss of seats and as cracks continue to open within the ranks of the ruling elite.

"The right thing for Mugabe to do is step down," said Jonathan Moyo, an independent candidate who plans to support the opposition in parliament. "There will be a disaster for Mugabe if he decides to go for a runoff."

The pace of events has left many Zimbabweans struggling to keep up. Only two weeks ago, few analysts predicted that the president could be defeated in a vote when he controlled nearly every lever of power and had demonstrated an ability to profoundly manipulate results in favor of his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, generally known by its acronym ZANU-PF.

Yet the surge of support for Tsvangirai, who promised to alleviate Zimbabwe's punishing inflation rate of 100,000 percent and end its international isolation, appears to have overwhelmed the electoral weapons in Mugabe's arsenal. Those included voter rolls that excluded thousands of opponents and included thousands of voters whose existence could not be documented.

"There was some semblance of rigging in the elections," said Marwick T. Khumalo, a legislator from Swaziland who headed the Pan-African Parliament's observer mission. "It was not significant enough to overturn the outcome."

Khumalo also said the time had come for regional leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, to negotiate a solution to the stalemate so that Mugabe, 84, could retire with dignity.

"In our region, we still have some kind of respect for the role he has played, not only in the liberation of Zimbabwe but also the development of the southern African subregion," Khumalo said. "We would still want a graceful exit for him. . . . We wouldn't want him to leave as the worst of all leaders who ever existed."

Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader, came to power in 1980 when the former British colony of Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The country was seen as a beacon of post-colonial progress as its public education system became one of Africa's best and its commercial farms churned out high-quality tobacco, tea and more than enough food to feed its citizens.

Zimbabwe began a steep decline in 2000, when Mugabe endorsed chaotic and often violent land invasions of white-owned farms by black peasants that resulted in the collapse of the agricultural sector.

The state-controlled Herald newspaper, widely seen as a mouthpiece for Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba, reported Wednesday that a second round of presidential voting was likely. The opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, while not abandoning its claim to have won outright, announced soon after that it would welcome a second round.

"We have won this election," said Tendai Biti, the party's secretary general. But he questioned the need for a runoff in a thinly veiled dig at Mugabe, who is often referred to here as "the Old Man."

"We hope that for the purposes of ensuring that we rebuild this country there will be somebody who will concede that the runoff serves no purpose other than to embarrass some elderly quarters in this country," Biti said.

The opposition party's aggressiveness in proclaiming its apparent win -- it first announced victory, based on the very partial results available at 1 a.m. Sunday, six hours after polls closed -- has clearly rankled Mugabe's party.

Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told the BBC that the opposition was being "irresponsible" and "mischievous." In Zimbabwe, only the electoral commission has the legal right to announce results. Government officials have threatened to punish those who make their own representations about vote totals, as the opposition has done.

"They have got to be very careful with their activities," Matonga said. "They think they can provoke ZANU-PF and the police and the army."

Tsvangirai ran on promises of arresting Zimbabwe's economic slide while implementing several expensive initiatives, including free primary education and vastly expanded distribution of antiretroviral drugs to combat the nation's AIDS epidemic, one of the world's worst.

One party official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was already packing up his office at the opposition party's dilapidated downtown headquarters.

"We're ready to go to our new offices in government," he said.

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