Mugabe party surges towards victory amid calls for calm

HARARE (AFP) - Zimbabwe was set on Saturday to release official results of elections in which President Robert Mugabe's party has claimed a thumping victory, as the opposition held emergency talks over the "sham" polls.

The capital was quiet ahead of the announcement of the final tally with Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party having already claimed the 140 seats in parliament required to amend the constitution.

"We have already gone beyond two-thirds. It's a super majority," a top party official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

With 186 of 210 constituencies officially counted after Wednesday's disputed poll, Mr Mugabe's party already had a commanding lead, winning 137 seats in parliament.

Party spokesman Rugare Gumbo told AFP: "Our opponents don't know what hit them", adding that the 89-year-old Mugabe could win "70 to 75 per cent" in the presidential vote.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who described the vote as a "huge farce", went into emergency talks on Saturday to decide their next steps.

The MDC has vowed not to accept the election results, sparking fears of a repeat of bloody violence that marked the aftermath of the 2008 election.

"Emotions are high, tensions are high across the country," MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said.

While on the streets, things have remained calm, United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon urged both political rivals to send "clear messages of calm" to their supporters.

Mr Ban hopes that the broadly "calm and peaceful atmosphere" of election day "will prevail during the vote counting and throughout the completion of the electoral process", said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.

A senior MDC official, said the party faces a dilemma over its claims that ZANU-PF stole the election.

"We can't tell people to be calm, we can't tell people to demonstrate unless you know the outcome," the source said.

The influential 15-member southern African bloc SADC also implored "all Zimbabweans to exercise restraint, patience and calm".

All eyes are now on the MDC, which will hold a press conference at 4pm (10pm Singapore).

Harare barber Right Chirombe said there was no basis to the claims that the poll was rigged.

"In 2008 we voted in anger, but this time we knew what we were doing, having experienced the two leaders - we now know who has the qualities to be a leader," barber Chirombe, 28, told AFP.

Observers appeared divided over the conduct of the poll.

The African Union's top poll observer, Mr Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, said shortly after polling stations closed that the election had been "peaceful, orderly, free and fair".

The Southern African Development Community stopped short of declaring it "fair" but said it was "free and peaceful".

"We did not say it was fair... we didn't want to jump to a conclusion," said top SADC election observer Bernard Membe, while adding that he would try to convince Mr Tsvangirai to concede defeat.

SADC negotiated the creation of a power-sharing government in the wake of 2008's bloody poll.

With 600 observers on the ground, SADC's verdict and next steps will be closely watched by Western nations barred from monitoring the poll themselves.

However, foreign diplomats have privately described the polls as fundamentally flawed, and the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network reported up to one million voters were prevented from voting in Tsvangirai strongholds.

Monitors from the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) on Saturday urged the rivals to "accept the results from the people".

"The mission urges all parties to pursue legally established channels to resolve any disputes," said head of the COMESA observers Bethuel Kiplagat.

Even before the official election call, Mugabe followers were already planning how to use what could be a crushing parliamentary majority.

"The new constitution will need cleaning up," said Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, referring to a text overwhelmingly approved in March that introduced term limits and curbed presidential powers.

Justice Chinamasa said Mr Mugabe's government would also press on with controversial efforts to bring firms under black ownership.

Investors have expressed fears that that may mean rolling back the power-sharing government's efforts to stabilise the economy after crippling hyperinflation and joblessness.

"It's back to extreme volatility," Mr Iraj Abedian, the CEO of Pan African Investments, told AFP from Johannesburg.

"We can expect fairly radical positions that will have populist support, but which will have huge implications."

Mr Mugabe - Africa's oldest ruler - is a former guerrilla leader who guided Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 from Britain and white minority rule.

But his more than three-decade military-backed rule has been marked by economic meltdown and international diplomatic isolation.

Former union boss Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed intimidation and attacks.

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