Zimbabwe's opposition refuses to take part in presidential run-off with Mugabe

Zimbabwe's future looks increasingly perilous after the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change ruled out participating in a run-off election, saying the party had won the presidential election outright in the first round.

In an abrupt U-turn, the MDC secretary general Tendai Biti warned yesterday that any attempt by President Robert Mugabe's regime to stage a run-off election would be a ploy to illegally cling to power and would only heighten the suffering of the Zimbabwean people. Electoral authorities have still not released the results, nearly two weeks after the presidential ballot on 29 March. Mr Mugabe is widely believed to have lost to his long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai, having watched his ruling party lose control of the lower house of parliament for the first time since independence from Britain.

Mr Biti accused Mr Mugabe of in effect staging a constitutional coup d'état by remaining in office, and said that a military regime was already in place in Zimbabwe. "We won't participate in any election run-off because we won hands down in the first round," Mr Biti said in Johannesburg. "A new [MDC] government has to get on with the business of governing and not a run-off election determined by the main author of Zimbabwe's miseries. Such a run-off will, in fact, be a run-off over the rights of long-suffering Zimbabweans who have made their electoral preferences very loud and clear."

There was also no way in which the MDC could accept and participate in a run-off in Zimbabwe's highly militarised environment in which Mr Mugabe had already intensified a campaign of violence and a siege of terror on defenceless citizens, he went on.

A showdown is looming between Mr Mugabe and his neighbours at an emergency summit in Lusaka, Zambia, tomorrow. Mr Biti challenged southern African leaders to make it very clear to Mr Mugabe that his time is up and that he should allow the victors from the presidential elections to take over. Leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have called the summit to discuss Zimbabwe and try to stop it degenerating into Kenya-style chaos. But unless they show real determination, it is unlikely that they will be able to put off an impending disaster in Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe has confirmed he will attend the summit. Mr Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, will also be in attendance although he has already been doing the rounds to meet regional leaders and lobby them. Mr Biti denied that his boss had fled Zimbabwe. "Mugabe has put our country on autopilot to self destruction," he said. "He must now be stopped. SADC leaders must tell him clearly without any equivocation that this is now the end of the end game for him."

Sources say Mr Mugabe is not prepared to give up power and had considered nullifying the parliamentary results. Apparently, they said, Mr Mugabe genuinely believes that the MDC stole the parliamentary vote by "bribing" electoral officials to inflate opposition numbers. His senior military commanders, in particular Perence Shiri and Constantine Chiwenga, were urging him to stay on, the sources said.

Mr Biti dismissed the accusations that the MDC had rigged the poll as ludicrous. Those claiming that would excel "if they considered writing satirical novels or becoming full-time comedians", said a visibly angry Mr Biti, who noted that allies of Mr Mugabe were in charge of the entire electoral process. He warned that the MDC would not accept any doctored figures.

The Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said the ruling Zanu-PF would demand recounts or reruns in at least 21 parliamentary seats they had lost.

Analysts are unanimous that the MDC's refusal to participate in a run-off significantly raises the stakes in Zimbabwe and could plunge the country into the abyss unless regional leaders reach an amicable settlement.

The MDC had earlier said it would participate in an election run-off. Mr Biti said the MDC had won an outright majority by a figure higher than the 50.3 percent it earlier claimed, after finding other ballots which had not been accounted for. But independent monitoring agencies say Mr Tsvangirai won by a majority not big enough to avoid a run-off.

The future now looks bleak, given the increasingly belligerent stand of the MDC and Zanu-PF, with both sides having ruled out a government of national unity yesterday.

If electoral authorities order a run-off, as they are most likely to do, and the MDC boycotts it, widespread violence looks inevitable. Even if the MDC can be persuaded to participate, information from Zimbabwe indicates Mr Mugabe is preparing for war to win any second round by violence. In the past few days, he has sent out his supporters to invade remaining white-owned farms, and opposition supporters have been intimidated.

Senior army officers have been reportedly deployed in specific areas around the country to lead a campaign of violence against opposition supporters.

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