Opposition leader vows to challenge defeat

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"This is the biggest electoral fraud I have ever witnessed in my life," a tired but still determined Morgan Tsvangirai said yesterday as a cloud of gloom settled over his Movement for Democratic Change.

The defeated Mr Tsvangirai stated the MDC could not endorse the "purported" election of President Robert Mugabe, which he described as "gross and violent electoral theft". The election that Mr Mugabe won with 54 per cent of the vote was "illegitimate in the eyes of the people", Mr Tsvangirai said. "We pledge not to abandon the people in this, their greatest hour of need," he said, dispelling any thoughts that the party might go into exile to escape an expected government crackdown. "We remain firmly committed to a democratic and peaceful path, which we shall pursue to the end."

The MDC leader, who has long lived under the threat of death, asked similar courage of tens of thousands of supporters who have endured beatings, torture, threats and arrests to exercise democratic choice. More than 100 have been killed.

Tens of thousands more may be subject to harassment in the future. There is no shortage of democratic will among Africans – as was seen during many liberation struggles and more recently in Zimbabwe – only very hard choices.

There are strong claims to back Mr Tsvangirai's indignation. Among them, pre-election surveys that gave the MDC candidate a big lead, carefully recorded cases of alleged legal breaches, claims of electoral travesties and mass human rights violations. However, many of these are flimsy in the absence of concrete evidence on which to build a local and international case of rogue rule.

Proof is needed of exactly how votes were "stolen" but does not sufficiently exist because, the MDC says, of the arrest and harassment of opposition and independent polling agents and observers, the deliberate confusion around an ever-changing voters' roll and unseen supplementary roll, and so on. Also, who can exactly measure the voting impact of intimidation and violence?

In the run-up to the election Mr Tsvangirai and the secretary general of his party, Welshman Ncube, were arrested in connection with treason for an alleged assassination plot against Mr Mugabe. They say the charges were concocted by the government to discredit them.

So long as he is in power, it will be difficult to get Mr Mugabe to the International Court of Justice. And the "smart sanctions" slapped against him and colleagues by the EU and US ironically mean they will deny him the travel rights that would get him to territory on which he could be arrested. He is too smart to go anywhere else that such a thing might happen.

Depending on his state of mind and the price that continued rule may extract from him politically, Mr Mugabe will either bank on rehabilitating himself with his population before relinquishing power to live out a negotiated retirement, or go for broke and carve a notch for himself as a radical Africanist by returning his "developing" country to feudalism.

It is an indication of the state of Zimbabwe that these are his choices.

But they are not the choices of the MDC, which will challenge the poll through the courts. A difficult task in a country where leaders change legislation to suit themselves and pack high courts with party supporters.