2 April 2008

Zimbabwe: Mugabe May Step Down

Lagos — Indications that the Zimba-bwean president, Robert Mugabe, may step down emerged yesterday, although a government spokesperson said no deal had been struck.

Opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, also denied that he was in talks with Mugabe to arrange this resignation.

"There is no discussion," Tsvangirai told a news conference yesterday. He declined to declare himself the winner of the presidential election and said his MDC would not enter any deal before full election results were announced.

He appeared to prefer an outright win that will prevent entering into dialogue with the ruling party.

Mugabe's deputy information minister Bright Matonga told the BBC: "There is no deal. There is no need for a deal."

He added: "There are no negotiations whatsoever because we are waiting for the presidential results."

An earlier flurry of conflicting reports had led news agencies and CNN to report that Mugabe was ready to step down after he accepted he had failed to win the country's presidential election.

CNN reported the MDC saying that Tsvangirai was ready to accept the presidency after an agreement was reached -- purportedly through South African-brokered talks -- that Mugabe would step down. A senior Zanu-PF official, however, told CNN the ruling party would demand a run-off election be held.

Various sources had earlier claimed that senior members of Tsvangirai's MDC and aides to Mugabe had been holding negotiations about an exit strategy since Monday.

The MDC is confident that it has won both the presidential and parliamentary elections and is already slightly ahead of Zanu-PF in the legislative count with two-thirds of the results declared.

The latest official parliamentary election results announced by Zimbabwe's electoral commission had Zanu-PF in the lead with 79 constituencies, the MDC with 77 and the breakaway MDC faction with five, out of a total of 210 constituencies being contested.

However, there has still been no official result from the presidential contest, prompting MDC accusations that the authorities were desperately trying to cook up a way to keep Mugabe in power.

In a statement on Monday, the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network said that according to its random representative sample of polling stations across the country, Tsvangirai had won just more than 49% of the vote. A presidential candidate needs at least 50% plus one vote to avoid a run-off.

A run-off would have to be held within 21 days, leaving it close to the 28th anniversary of independence on April 18 1980. Mugabe, who led a guerrilla movement that fought a seven-year war to end white minority rule, regards the anniversary as a potent symbol of his rule.

While there has so far been no significant violence in the aftermath of the poll, news that Mugabe was apparently ready to step down came after a coalition of rights groups warned the country was teetering on the brink of anarchy.

In a petition to the regional 14-member Southern African Development Community and the African Union, a coalition of 18 rights organisations urged them to exert pressure for the rapid announcement of the presidential result.

"We ... have found it necessary to send this urgent petition to your excellencies in order to save our country from potentially sinking into complete anarchy if election results are manipulated," the petition said.

The United States yesterday urged the Mugabe government to release election results quickly and respect the people's will even if it means officials losing office.

The elections were held as Zimbabwe grapples with an inflation rate of more than 100 000 per cent and widespread shortages of even basic foodstuffs such as bread and cooking oil.

Mugabe (84), Africa's oldest leader, has blamed the economic woes on the European Union and the US, which imposed sanctions on his inner circle after he was accused of rigging his 2002 re-election.

The White House says it is "concerned" over the Zimbabwe Electoral Council's delayed announcement of the election results as tensions rise in the country.

Meanwhile, riot police have been deployed in two of Harare's restive townships as tensions rise, according to the Reuters agency.

A resident of one of the townships said a 20-vehicle convoy of riot police had moved through the area.

Earlier, British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said the "eyes of the world" were on Zimbabwe amid fears of vote rigging.

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