Opposition leaders go into hiding as poll result is delayed

Senior figures in Zimbabwe's opposition were in hiding last night as a tremendous power struggle played out in the wake of weekend elections in which President Robert Mugabe's government appeared to have been defeated.

Official results from the state-appointed electoral commission were issued yesterday, with almost theatrical slowness, as factions within the ruling party and the security apparatus scrambled for any alternative to conceding defeat.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change claimed a landslide victory and declared its leader Morgan Tsvangirai an outright winner. Spokesman Tendai Biti warned the government against stealing the election, saying: "Zimbabwe is on the edge of a precipice."

He said the people would not accept a faked outcome and vowed "peaceful protests" if his party was denied the win. A cabal of Mr Mugabe's top aides, including six cabinet ministers, the Vice-President and a former intelligence chief, have lost their "safe" seats already.

Mr Tsvangirai, along with his fellow presidential challenger Simba Makoni, met security chiefs in Harare late on Sunday night, according to unnamed officials. Despite optimism that a deal would be reached involving immunity for Mr Mugabe and a lengthy transition period in which government chiefs would hold on to their jobs, there was no agreement.

The leaders of the armed forces, police and prison service warned prior to the elections that they would refuse to recognise an opposition victory. With neither Mr Tsvangirai nor Mr Mugabe seen in public since Saturday, the country has been gripped by fear and uncertainty.

Mr Mugabe had, according to one rumour, left the country, but there has been no independent confirmation of this.

Yesterday, tension swept the capital, where phone lines were largely jammed, forcing people to communicate by text. It was then that threats began to be issued. One senior MDC official, a former shadow minister, said: "We were warned by an insider that they were getting the guns out. We've been through this before, but every time you get a dry taste in the back of your throat." Several opposition officials have moved to safe houses.

Last year the ruling party unleashed hit squads to administer punishment beatings to MDC officials in the wake of a public protest by Mr Tsvangirai, who was himself badly assaulted in police custody. At least four activists were killed.

Early yesterday morning the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission finally relented under pressure from rights groups, opposition parties and foreign observers to begin releasing election results. But in a crudely stage-managed affair, only a trickle of results were announced – with lengthy breaks – in such a way as to maintain parity between Zanu-PF and the MDC.

With fewer than 40 of the 210 constituencies announced there were already serious problems emerging. Two constituencies awarded to Zanu-PF contradict results taken from the actual polling stations in those areas and seen by The Independent.

For the first time this year all results have been published at individual polling stations, so any poll numbers announced centrally that don't add up will be identifiable. The Mugabe regime insisted on tallying presidential votes at one central location in a bid to circumvent this problem, but photographs of results at individual polling stations have been collected by independent observers and the MDC in case of fraud.

The Pan-African Parliament said the election process was "problematic", while African Union observers called for results to be given immediately. One of its own members walked out after SADC observers said the polls were "credible".

The head of the electoral commission is alleged to have attempted to flee the country on Sunday after being given contradictory instructions from the government and generals.

Gordon Brown held emergency talks with the South African President Thabo Mbeki and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan yesterday. Downing Street said Mr Brown remained in touch with international leaders, as David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, demanded that the results of the elections be released. He said: "On Saturday, the Zimbabwean people turned out to vote in their millions. Their voice must now be heard without delay. It is vital that this election should chart a course for Zimbabwe chosen by the people of Zimbabwe."

Mr Miliband was in Paris last night to discuss the election with counterparts from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain during wider talks.

In a joint statement, they said: "We call on the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission to swiftly announce all the election results, especially the results of the presidential election. The future of the Zimbabwean people depends on the credibility and transparency of the electoral process."

Earlier, the US joined calls for an immediate release of results.

Zimbabwe's economic collapse, which has seen millions flee the country, appears to have spurred an emphatic rejection of the ruling party and Mr Mugabe. Although riot police were able to prevent widespread opposition celebrations, by last night hundreds of excited text message circulars were promising a new beginning.

Mugabe's fallen allies

*Patrick Chinamasa

The highest-profile Mugabe crony to fall, the Justice Minister lost his seat in the opposition stronghold of Manicaland. The 61-year-old has been accused of persecuting Zanu-PF opponents, and several judges have resigned during his tenure, complaining of political interference. He stood trial in 2006, accused of perverting the course of justice, but was cleared.

*Joyce Mujuru

As a commander in the liberation army, she went by the nom de guerre "Spill Blood" and earned fame for shooting down a Rhodesian army helicopter. Joined Mugabe's first post-independence cabinet in 1980 aged 25, and after holding portfolios such as sport and rural development, rose to the vice-presidency in 2004. She was touted as a possible successor to Mugabe.

*Didymus Mutasa

Appointed Minister of National Security and Land Affairs in 2005, Mr Mutasa became arguably the second most powerful man in Zimbabwe with oversight of the Central Intelligence Organisation. One of his most controversial moves was Operation Drive Out The Filth, when soldiers and police bulldozed the homes of hundreds of thousands of poor people.

*Sydney Sekeramayi

Another Mugabe crony who has served in the cabinet since independence, Mr Sekeramayu's most recent incarnation was as Defence Minister. Studied in Czechoslovakia and spent much of the liberation struggle in Sweden. Has considerable influence, given that the armed forces have been one of the key planks of the regime, and used in the past to rig elections.

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