MDC claims Tsvangirai as "next president of Zimbabwe"

(dpa) - Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Wednesday rejected the need for a second round in the presidential contest between MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and longtime leader Robert Mugabe, as it emerged Mugabe's party had lost its parliamentary majority.

The MDC said its own count of results from Saturday's elections showed "that Morgan Richard Tsvangirai is the next president of the Republic of Zimbabwe without (the need for) a runoff (vote)."

But a second round of voting, which the constitution calls for in the event neither candidate takes more than 50 per cent, emerged as a possible option after the MDC conceded it would participate in a runoff, albeit "under protest."

The MDC claimed victory based on results from the combined presidential, parliamentary and local elections posted outside the 9,100 polling stations since Sunday. The official electoral commission has not yet released any results from the presidential vote.

Bright Matonga, a government spokesman, called the MDC declaration "a mischievous way to instigate an uprising" and warned the party to be "very careful".

MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti told a press conference Tsvangirai, 56, had taken 50.3 per cent of the vote, against 43.8 per cent for longtime President Robert Mugabe, 84, and 6 per cent for former finance minister Simba Makoni, 58.

Meanwhile, official figures from the state-controlled Zimbabwe Electoral Commission showing Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party had lost its majority in the 210-seat House of Assembly.

With 200 of 210 seats counted, Zanu-PF had taken 94 against 98 for Tsvangirai's MDC faction, 7 seats for a smaller MDC faction and one for an independent. Even if Zanu-PF took all 12 remaining seats it would not have a majority. The MDC needs just one more seat for a majority.

Analysts said his party's weakened assembly presence would make it difficult for Mugabe to claim he had won the presidency.

Biti said Tsvangirai would take part in a presidential runoff vote "under protest" but preferred to spare Mugabe the "humiliation".

It was not clear whether Mugabe himself was keen to go to a runoff, in which most pundits predict he would be defeated if the divided opposition united against him.

At the weekend Mugabe said a runoff vote would "not be necessary."

The MDC quoted an estimate produced by the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network to back up its win claim.

ZESN's estimate, based on a random sample of results from polling stations, shows Tsvangirai taking 49.2 per cent of the vote against 41.8 per cent for Mugabe and 8.2 per cent for Makoni. That estimate had contained a margin of error of 2.4 per cent.

The MDC's announcement, coming a day after Tsvangirai's vowed to wait for the outcome of the official count before declaring victory, appeared designed to apply pressure on Mugabe to concede defeat.

Sources close to the MDC said Tuesday that the MDC, Zanu-PF and the military were in talks on the election outcome but the government and Tsvangirai have rejected rumours a deal had been struck on Mugabe's exit.

The administration of US President George W Bush earlier stopped short of calling on Mugabe to step aside but said it was "clear the people of Zimbabwe have voted for change."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told his parliament that any runoff vote would have to meet the standards of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, with whom Britain "remained in contact" about the Zimbabwe situation.

As tension mounts in Zimbabwe South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for all sides to avoid bloodshed.

"The people of Zimbabwe have suffered enough," he said in a BBC interview, suggesting a peacekeeping mission should be sent to the southern African country.

Saturday's elections, which got a qualified thumbs-up from African observers despite widespread irregularities, including the presence of police in polling stations, was seen mainly as a vote on the economic chaos wrought by Mugabe's populist policies, which have resulted in 100,000-per-cent inflation and brought millions to the brink of starvation.

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

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