Zimbabwe opposition to fight ballot recount

Zimbabwe's opposition, frustrated by the failure of a regional summit to help its cause, has vowed to fight President Robert Mugabe's plans to hold recounts in nearly two dozen constituencies in what appears to be his latest attempt to reverse his government's defeat in parliamentary elections.

News of the recounts in the 23 seats, all but one of which were won by the opposition, came as a virtual aside yesterday in the Sunday Mail, a government-owned newspaper. Apart from fresh counts of the parliamentary contests, the newspaper said votes cast in the presidential election would also be tallied again – even though the result of that election has never been announced.

Claiming that he had won the poll outright, Mr Mugabe's opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, had appealed to southern African leaders meeting in Zambia at the weekend to endorse him as Zimbabwe's president. The gathering lasted longer than expected, signalling much disagreement going on behind closed doors. But when the leaders emerged after more than 12 hours of talks at 5am yesterday, the end result was no more than a weak appeal for the presidential election results to be published "expeditiously".

This outcome had appeared inevitable since Mr Mugabe snubbed the meeting, forcing President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the region's designated mediator, to call on him in Harare before going on to Lusaka. With Mr Mugabe at his side, Mr Mbeki said there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe, and called for patience.

Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), suspecting that the recounts are simply another delaying tactic while Mr Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party decide how to deal with their unexpected setback on 29 March, has gone to court to stop them being held this Saturday. An opposition lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, said a hearing was due tomorrow.

Zanu-PF representatives had signed off on the official tallies on 29 March, he complained, but "suddenly, two weeks later, the same person who said, 'this is the outcome' and signed for it, says they need a recount". While a recount should take place in the presence of officials from all parties, the opposition points out the ballot boxes have been under government control for the past fortnight.

Zanu-PF lost control of the House of Assembly in the election, winning only 97 seats to the combined opposition's 109. If even a handful of results were reversed, Mr Mugabe's party would regain its majority. In the presidential poll, independent monitors believe Mr Tsvangirai came out well ahead of Mr Mugabe, but fell just short of an overall majority, meaning a run-off vote is needed. A separate MDC application for the presidential result to be disclosed immediately is due to be ruled on today by a High Court judge.

The government's initial response to the humiliating outcome of the election was to arrest 11 election officials. A spokesman, Bright Matonga, said yesterday that claims of irregularities were coming from both sides. But an opposition source said that Zanu-PF was looking for "ways to reduce the gap between the candidates in the first round of the presidential election, making it seem credible when Mugabe wins the second round."

Mr Mugabe's party has also launched a campaign of intimidation in the rural areas, and is seeking to crack down on media coverage. It emerged yesterday that Margaret Kriel, 60, a former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation journalist who launched a popular website, Morning Mirror, was arrested on Thursday at her Bulawayo home.

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