Rival Resists Zimbabwe Runoff, Saying He Won

Other News Materials 6 April 2008 04:10

(nytimes) - The Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Saturday denied the need for a runoff election, insisting that he had won the presidential election outright. He also warned that the ruling party was readying a campaign of violence against his supporters to hang onto power.

Mr. Tsvangirai promised safety to President Robert Mugabe, 84, if he stepped aside. But his call for Mr. Mugabe to enter talks aimed at a peaceful, democratic transition seemed unlikely to find a warm reception from ZANU-PF, the ruling party. On Friday it proclaimed that Mr. Mugabe would participate in a runoff if neither he nor Mr. Tsvangirai, 56, won a majority.

The opposition and the ruling party are jockeying for political position as the country and the world wait with consternation for Zimbabwean election officials to finally announce the outcome of a presidential election held last Saturday, a race that was, according to all provisional tallies, extraordinarily close.

Lawyers for Mr. Tsvangirai's party, Movement for Democratic Change, tried Saturday to force the Electoral Commission to release the official tally through a petition to the High Court. A hearing is expected Sunday.

When the lawyers approached the court in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, on Saturday morning, to file the lawsuit, armed police officers briefly blocked them from entering, Reuters reported.

"We can't go in," an opposition lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, told journalists. "They are threatening to shoot. They say no one enters the court."

A growing chorus that includes Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, has appealed for a speedy release of the vote count, but on Saturday, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, perhaps the most important international player in Zimbabwe's electoral drama, counseled patience after meeting Mr. Brown in London, news agencies reported.

"I think there is time to wait," said Mr. Mbeki, who was appointed by a regional bloc of nations to mediate in Zimbabwe but has been accused by Mr. Tsvangirai of favoring Mr. Mugabe. "Let's see the outcome of the election results."

The ruling party, which has led the country into a ruinous economic decline, lost its majority in the lower house of Parliament in last week's election for the first time since the country's independence from white rule in 1980, but is now demanding a recount for 16 seats in an apparent bid to reclaim control.

Mr. Tsvangirai, who was brutally beaten by the police in a crackdown on the opposition last year, warned at a news conference in Harare on Saturday that the ruling party would resort to violent intimidation of his supporters during a runoff. He expressed reservations about participating in a runoff, though he stopped short of threatening a boycott.

He said the ruling party was mobilizing youth militias and veterans of the country's independence struggle to carry out a campaign he described as a war against the people.

The ruling party, which confiscated large, commercial farms of white farmers, helping precipitate the economy's collapse, is stoking fears that an opposition government would take land given to blacks and return it to whites. Much of the land was given to Mr. Mugabe's cronies, Zimbabwe analysts say.

The state-run newspaper, The Herald, reported Saturday that white farmers were returning "in droves," threatening to reclaim their land, a charge Roy Bennett, the opposition party's treasurer, dismissed as "absolute nonsense."

In the 2002 presidential election, which some Western observers charged was stolen from Mr. Tsvangirai, there were extensive allegations of vote rigging and violence by the ruling party. And human rights and civic groups fear a runoff could feature a replay of those tactics by a corrupt elite desperate to keep power and the material wealth it has brought them.

There are signs the ruling party is tightening its grip on the country. The police blocked the main roads leading into Harare's center on Saturday, and were stopping and searching vehicles, a chilling development for foreign journalists who are covering the election without accreditation.

On Thursday, the police arrested Barry Bearak, a correspondent in the Johannesburg bureau of The New York Times, on charges related to covering the election without official permission from the government. He was still being held in a Harare jail on Saturday.

Mr. Tsvangirai's party ran large advertisements in major South African newspapers on Saturday calling on Zimbabwe's neighbors and other countries to support its efforts to unseat Mr. Mugabe.

"At this stage, we offer the hand of peace to the current regime, and will recognize and respect their rights, if the transition is expedited without further ado, but this offer will not remain open indefinitely," the advertisement said.