HARARE (Reuters) - Riot police appeared on the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital after a long delay to election results fuelled opposition suspicions that President Robert Mugabe may try and cling to power by rigging the vote.
Reuters journalists saw the riot police in Harare late on Sunday and residents in outlying poor townships said they had seen stepped up patrols by security forces.
“We have been told to stay indoors,” said a resident in the eastern suburb of Tafara, declining to be named.
Mugabe, 84, faced the biggest challenge of his 28-year-rule in Saturday’s election because of Zimbabwe’s economic collapse and a two-pronged opposition attack that put him under unprecedented political pressure.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai said it had won an overwhelming victory, but electoral officials said no official results would be released until 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) on Monday, 35 hours after polls closed.
Results in past votes have begun emerging soon afterwards.
The chairman of Zimbabwe’s electoral commission, George Chiweshe, said the delay was caused by the complexity of holding presidential, parliamentary and local polls together for the first time, and the need to verify results meticulously.
All results would be announced on Monday, he told reporters.
“Mugabe has lost the election. Everyone knows no one voted for Mugabe, but they are now trying to cook up a result in his favor, “ said MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti.
Zimbabwe is suffering from the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel, and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.
Two South African members of a regional observer mission said the delay in announcing the election results “underscores the fear that vote-rigging is taking place.”
They refused to sign a positive preliminary report on the poll by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and said there was evidence of “widespread and convincing” MDC wins.
Mugabe’s government warned the opposition it would regard victory claims as a coup attempt. The president, in power since independence from Britain, accuses the West of sabotaging Zimbabwe’s economy and rejects vote-rigging allegations.
SADC mission chairman Jose Marcos Barrica of Angola told reporters through an interpreter the election “has been a peaceful and credible expression of the will of the people.”
Mugabe is being challenged by veteran rival Tsvangirai and former finance minister and ruling ZANU-PF party official Simba Makoni. Both accuse the former guerrilla leader of wrecking a once prosperous economy and reducing the population to misery.
Although the odds seem stacked against Mugabe, analysts believe his iron grip on the country and backing from the armed forces will enable him to declare victory.
Barrica expressed concern about the voters roll, opposition access to the media and statements by the heads of security forces who had said they would not accept an opposition victory.
But he said: “We saw that the basic conditions for a free and fair election were there.”
The dissenting SADC mission members, who belong to South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance, said in a statement: “It is impossible for this deeply flawed electoral process to be viewed as a credible expression of the will of the people.”
The SADC, which critics say has been too soft on Mugabe, has unsuccessfully tried to mediate an end to Zimbabwe’s crisis, which has turned a quarter of the population into refugees.
Zimbabwe’s security forces, which have thrown their weight firmly behind Mugabe, said before the election they would not allow a victory declaration before counting was complete.
Government spokesman George Charamba warned the opposition against such claims. “It is called a coup d’etat and we all know how coups are handled,” he told the state-owned Sunday Mail.
Residents in the eastern opposition stronghold of Manicaland said riot police stopped a victory demonstration by about 200 MDC supporters on Sunday. There was no violence, they said.
The United States said it was worried by the conduct of the election and the absence of most international observers.
“The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a visit to Jerusalem.
(Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Stella Mapenzauswa, Nelson Banya, Muchena Zigomo and Arshad Mohammed in Jerusalem)
Writing by Barry Moody