Zimbabwe’s opposition claims early election lead

Riot police were deployed amid rising tension about the election.

.HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Zimbabwe’s main opposition party claimed an early lead Sunday in elections, seeking to thwart any possible vote rigging by President Robert Mugabe amid an ominous silence from the Electoral Commission and the deployment of security forces.

Earlier people celebrated in the streets, dancing, singing and giving each other the openhanded wave that is the opposition party’s symbol.

But by sundown, as frustrations grew more than 24 hours after polls closed, riot police and other security forces were patrolling the capital’s densely populated suburbs, according to independent election monitors.

In previous elections, partial results have been announced within hours of voting ending.

“Why are we not getting the results? It’s very clear to me Mugabe wants to steal this election,” said Hapisson Mate, a 23-year-old first-time voter.

The head of the Pan-African Parliament observer mission warned the delay was creating “anxiety” and warned of a scenario similar to Kenya, where a delayed announcement of results from a disputed December election led to an explosion of violence. More than 1,000 people were killed.

“These are the delays that start causing problems,” Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observers, told South African Broadcasting Corp. TV.

Discontent with Mugabe has grown nationwide and the election was seen as the toughest challenge to his 28-year rule. Unemployment stands at 80 percent – the same percentage that survives on less than $1 a day. Inflation is the highest in the world at more than 100,000 percent and people suffer crippling shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine.

“The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as whole,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday while in the Middle East for peace talks.

Mugabe calls his opponents stooges of former colonial ruler Britain and says the nation must make sacrifices to overcome its colonial legacy.

Running against Mugabe are chief opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, 55, who narrowly lost disputed 2002 elections, and former ruling party loyalist and finance minister Simba Makoni, 58. If no presidential candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, there will be a runoff.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change said he was leading the presidential race with 67 percent of votes, basing its unofficial count on returns from 35 percent of polling stations nationwide.

The party also claimed to have taken some of Mugabe’s rural strongholds. The claims were based on results posted overnight on the doors of polling stations.

But the outcome of the race was impossible to predict without results from other rural areas, where three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s population live and Mugabe garners most of his support.