Aides of Zimbabwe president talk of ceding power

April 1, 2008 9:33:31 AM PDT
Advisers of President Robert Mugabe and his chief rival are discussing the possibility of Zimbabwe's longtime leader relinquishing power, a businessman close to the electoral commission and a lawyer close to the opposition told The Associated Press on Tuesday. The businessman said Mugabe has been told he is far behind Morgan Tsvangirai in preliminary results of Saturday's presidential elections and that there could be an uprising if Mugabe were declared the winner. The lawyer said advisers to both men were discussing a "transitional arrangement."

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

However, the secretary-general of Tsvangirai's party, Tendai Biti, dismissed the reports, saying "It's rubbish."

Independent observers say trends indicate Tsvangirai won the most votes in the presidential race, but not enough to avoid a runoff - a prospect that could be humiliating to the 84-year-old president.

No returns from the presidential vote have been made public, fueling fears of rigging. Mugabe has been accused of stealing past elections, though that was before Zimbabwe's economy collapsed and leading members of his own party openly defied him.

Zimbabwe's security chiefs have told the Electoral Commission to issue results portraying a close race, to prevent celebrations that could ignite violence, the businessman said.

John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said he had learned from military sources that they would honor the results of the elections. The security chiefs last week warned they would not serve anybody but Mugabe and would not tolerate an opposition victory.

Tsvangirai on Tuesday postponed his first public statement since the elections until later in the day. His spokesman George Shibotshiwe said that was because the opposition party had received "a tremendous breakthrough in the numbers coming in" from the elections.

The opposition already has claimed victory in the elections based on results posted outside polling stations, including in several rural strongholds of Mugabe. The initiative to display the results on voting station doors was part of an agreement between the parties negotiated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, and could make it more difficult to cheat.

Tsvangirai has vowed not to entertain an alliance with Mugabe but has said previously that he is ready to negotiate an exit package for Zimbabwe's ruler for 28 years. He also has said that Mugabe should be tried for human rights abuses, possibly in an international court.

It appeared Mugabe was persuaded into talks by the possibility of a runoff presidential race, which the businessman said he would find too demeaning.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of 38 Zimbabwe civil society organizations, said its random representative sample of polling stations showed Tsvangirai won just over 49 percent of the vote and Mugabe 42 percent. Simba Makoni, a former Mugabe loyalist, trailed at about 8 percent.

A presidential candidate needs at least 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff.

Mugabe would have to weigh the concerns of those who have profited from his patronage, a group that includes top military leaders, party officials and business people. They receive mining concessions, construction contracts and preferential licenses to run transport companies and other businesses.

Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission, told South African radio Tuesday that leading members of Mugabe's party were contemplating defeat with trepidation.

"I was talking to some of the big wigs in the ruling party and they also are concerned about the possibility of a change of guard," Khumalo said. "ZANU-PF has actually been institutionalized in the lives of Zimbabweans, so it is not easy for anyone within the sphere of the ruling party to accept that 'Maybe we might be defeated or might have been defeated."'

Mugabe led a guerrilla movement that fought a seven-year war to end white minority rule. At independence, he was hailed for his policies of racial reconciliation and development that brought education and health to millions who had been denied those services under colonial rule. Zimbabwe's economy thrived on exports of food, minerals and tobacco.

The unraveling began when Mugabe ordered the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly to return them to the landless black majority. Instead, Mugabe replaced a white elite with a black one, giving the farms to relatives, friends and cronies who allowed cultivated fields to be taken over by weeds.

Today, a third of the population depends on imported food handouts. Another third has fled the country as economic and political refugees and 80 percent is jobless. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 35 years and shortages of food, medicine, water, electricity and fuel are chronic.

The economy is in dramatically worse shape than during past elections, driving other changes in Zimbabwe's political landscape. The candidacy of Makoni, a former finance secretary, drew open support from other leaders in the ruling party.