Robert Mugabe's seventh consecutive election victory as President of Zimbabwe has been described as political “theft” by the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Hopes that the MDC leader would accept defeat and quietly retreat from his long-standing frontline battle with the 89-year-old President evaporated when he announced that his party will no longer work with Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF and described the election as a farce.
In a press conference in Harare, Mr Tsvangirai announced that he would be legally challenging the election results. Election officials declared that Mr Mugabe won 61 per cent of the presidential vote against Mr Tsvangirai's 34 per cent.
In the parliamentary contest, the official results give Zanu-PF 158 seats in the 210-member chamber, handing Mr Mugabe a substantial majority and the authority to alter the country's constitution.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: "I commend the people of Zimbabwe on holding peaceful elections. However, we have grave concerns over the conduct of the election." He warned that reported "irregularities" "call into serious question the credibility of the election", adding: "We will need to examine what has happened and consider further reports from regional and local observer missions."
Refusal by the MDC to co-operate with the new Mugabe government plunges Zimbabwe yet again into constitutional limbo. Although Mr Tsvangirai said he would be appealing to the country's courts to examine the legitimacy of the results, it will be the views of those outside Zimbabwe, including the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that could decide the election.
For Mr Tsvangirai, this is not new territory. The MDC and Mr Mugabe have been working in a coalition, since the last election, in 2008, sparked widespread violence.
Mr Tsvangirai said Zimbabwe was "in mourning" over the subversion of the election. He said: "The fraudulent and stolen election has launched Zimbabwe into a constitutional, political and economic crisis." He said the MDC would produce a dossier of the alleged electoral fraud and he called on Zimbabwe's neighbours in the region's development bloc to look into the evidence.
However, before that process is begun, the country could face a substantial period of unrest if MDC supporters back Mr Tsvangirai's call for a campaign of civil unrest.
Mr Mugabe has in the past never avoided using violence to get his way, but the removal of all support and involvement in Zimbabwe's political processes by the opposition will leave him open to international criticism if he unleashes the full force of his office.
Although the AU mission monitoring the vote, headed by the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, dismissed complaints of fraud and, alongside SADC observers, broadly endorsed the result, the largest group of domestic monitors, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), lent credence to Mr Tsvangirai's claims that the election had been stolen from his party.
The ZESN pointed to problems with voter registration and the inability of a million potential MDC supporters to cast their votes in urban areas mostly opposed to Zanu-PF.
Some internal polling ahead of the election had forecast that the MDC would finally triumph against the alleged manipulation of the Mugabe regime. One poll suggested the MDC was likely to win 61 per cent of the vote. According to the official results, that forecast was out by a substantial margin, with the MDC winning just half that percentage. Although the MDC dossier will be laden with evidence of irregularities, in the past such complaints have been dismissed as signs of colonial influence and foreign pressure.
Incidents and claims of fraud across the country included allegations of names deliberately misspelled and not registered, violence and intimidation at polling stations, ID numbers being wrongly dismissed as false, and constituency alignments with voter names not matching.
If the scale of the alleged fraud is substantiated, with the MDC claiming that 40 per cent of its supporters were excluded on polling day, Zimbabwe's neighbours in southern Africa may decide to exert political force and demand a deadline for Mr Mugabe's presidency to end.
At 89, he may not have the health to enjoy another full term as president, although such forecasts have been made before, only for the President to defy his critics.
The AU monitors are believed to have told the MDC that it should have complained in advance of polling day – and that its anger now was not matched by pre-poll worries.
Figures produced by the ZESN claimed that 97 per cent of rural voters were correctly registered, but only 67 per cent of urban polling data had been correctly gathered and registered. The MDC's strongholds are in Zimbabwe's cities, with Zanu-PF relying heavily on support from rural constituencies.
One indication that Mr Mugabe had anticipated the likely objection from the MDC, and its call for civil unrest, is the appearance of extra police in Harare, with additional police in riot gear near government buildings in the state capital.