HARARE (AFP) - Veteran Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe pledged on Tuesday to step down if he loses fiercely contested elections in the country, as his rivals claimed they had evidence of vote-rigging.
"If you lose you must surrender," the 89-year-old firebrand said at a rare press conference in Harare on the eve of Wednesday's presidential and parliamentary vote.
Mr Mugabe, through a series of violent and suspect elections, has ruled Zimbabwe for 33 years without interruption since it gained independence from Britain.
But he denied any attempts to rig the vote, declaring: "We have done no cheating." He faces a major challenge from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his reluctant partner in an uneasy power-sharing government forged after the last bloody polls in 2008.
Mr Tsvangirai, though buffeted by sex scandals and allegations of party corruption, has drawn tens of thousands of supporters to his campaign rallies.
But Mr Mugabe's challengers fear the wily old crocodile of Zimbabwean politics will seek to win what is likely his final election through fraud or violence, if necessary.
Few believe the military - which remains squarely behind the one-time liberation hero - would recognise a Tsvangirai victory.
But Mr Mugabe dismissed widely reported comments from commanders who said they would not salute a president Tsvangirai.
"It's just those one or two, they are not the army. And they are not the authority anyway, that was their own view," he said.
Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change on Tuesday handed over what they claimed was documentary evidence of plans to rig the election to observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The dossier, which was seen but could not be independently verified by AFP, listed around 125 duplicate or questionable voters gleaned from examining the electoral roll.
The MDC received a copy of the roll less than 24 hours before polling stations open, and only in printed form, rather than digital.
"It is very clear to us there are shenanigans to try and rig this election, to try and interfere with the outcome of this election and to subvert the will of the people," junior minister Jameson Timba told AFP.
"We have seen a lot of duplicate names in the roll, where you see somebody is registered twice, same date of birth, same physical address but with a slight difference in their ID number," Timba said, adding that this had occurred for a number of constituencies.
Mr Mugabe admitted that delivery of the roll was one of the logistical "hitches" in the runup to the vote. "I only got my copy of the voters roll yesterday," he said.
No one at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was available to comment.
However, an SADC observer, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said the MDC dossier raised serious questions.
"It's not normal. If the roll had been released two weeks ago, these kind of problems would have been fixed." The dossier will only serve to fuel longstanding suspicions that the chaotic state of the voters' roll could be used to pad Mugabe's vote tally.
In June, the Research and Advocacy Unit, a non-government group, said after examining an incomplete roll that it included a million dead voters or emigres, as well as over 100,000 people who were more than 100 years old.
Around 6.4 million people are eligible to vote in Wednesday's first round, and results are expected within five days.
Credible opinion polls are rare, but according to one survey by the US-based Williams firm in March-April, Mr Mugabe could be in for a rough ride.
In a survey of 800 Zimbabweans, 61 per cent said they had a favourable view the MDC compared with 27 per cent for Mr Mugabe's ZANU-PF.
The poll showed Mr Tsvangirai leading in seven of 10 provinces and that only 34 per cent of those who voted for Mugabe in 2008 back him for president this time around.
Amid recovery from an economic crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mr Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested".
"We have won already. It's a walkover," said ZANU-PF supporter Jestara Mziwanda.
At campaign rallies, Mr Mugabe promised further indigenisation of foreign-owned assets.
He has also painted his rival as a foreign stooge and warned Zimbabweans against change, citing the fallout after uprisings in Egypt and Libya.
At Mr Tsvangirai's rallies, supporters have directed a chant of "game over" at Mr Mugabe.
He has promised to create a million jobs and has used Mr Mugabe's advanced age as campaign fodder, asking: "How can you let an old man push a plough when there are young people around?
"I want Mugabe to enjoy his retirement in peace and quiet," he said, in a hint that Mr Mugabe could be granted immunity if he relinquishes power.
Many in the military, government and Zimbabwe's lucrative diamond trade have their fortunes tied to Mugabe's survival, so a peaceful exit seems unlikely.
"Many expect a Mugabe victory, because 'ZANU doesn't lose elections'," the International Crisis Group said.
"Conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist," it said. "A return to protracted political crisis, and possibly extensive violence, is likely."