Army clear streets as Zimbabwe awaits election results

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Soldiers and police cleared the streets of central Harare on Thursday as the Zimbabwean authorities came under mounting pressure to release results of presidential elections after a deadly crackdown on protesters.

Landmark elections — the first since autocrat Robert Mugabe was ousted last year — turned bloody on Wednesday when troops opened fire on demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud, leaving three dead and prompting an international outcry.

The government accused the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party of inciting the unrest and vowed to enforce a security clampdown.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Thursday said he wanted an independent investigation into the killings, and that he sought to settle differences “peacefully”.

On Thursday, soldiers were on guard outside the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party, while armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and police anti-riot vans took position outside the MDC headquarters.

Soldiers brandishing assault rifles and police shouted at pedestrians and traders to leave central Harare, AFP witnessed.

“I wasn’t sure whether it’s safe to come to work. We had to consult among ourselves,” said one worker who declined to give his name.

In a late-night press conference on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu warned further protests would not be tolerated.

“The opposition… are testing our resolve and I think they are making a big mistake,” he said.

The MDC said the army had opened fire “for no apparent reason,” killing unarmed civilians.

The presidential election race has pitted 75-year-old Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former ally in ZANU-PF, against the MDC’s leader, Nelson Chamisa, 35 years his junior.

A rigged count?
In official results from the parliamentary election, also held on Monday, ZANU-PF won easily — suggesting Mnangagwa would be on course to retain the presidency.

But the MDC has said it won the elections outright and accused the government and Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) of rigging the count.

ZEC said the final results of the presidential race may not be known until Saturday.

Monday’s polls had been meant to turn the page on years of violence-marred elections and brutal repression of dissent after Mugabe’s 37-year rule was ended by a brief military takeover in November.

But the mood spiralled into anger as MDC supporters rallied in the city, chanting against the government and burning tyres in the streets.

“It’s disappointing — the government’s reaction only made things worse. It was heavy-handed,” trader Timie Manuwere, 37, told AFP.

“But I didn’t expect things to really change much with the elections. It was highly unlikely these guys would just give up power after eight months.”

Mnangagwa had promised a free and fair vote after the military ushered him to power when Mugabe was forced to resign.

A credible and peaceful vote was meant to end Zimbabwe’s international isolation and attract foreign investment to revive the shattered economy.

Election observers from the Commonwealth issued a statement Thursday to “denounce the excessive use of force against unarmed civilians.”

Before the violence, European Union observers declared they found an “un-level playing field and lack of trust” in the election process. It called for transparency in the release of results.

History of election violence
The UN and former colonial power Britain expressed concern over the violence and urged “restraint”.

Under Mugabe, elections were often marred by fraud and deadly violence.

Of 210 parliamentary seats, 207 have been counted with ZANU-PF winning 144 and the MDC Alliance just 61.

Chamisa said the results were fraudulent.

“We have won this one together. No amount of results manipulation will alter your will,” he tweeted before the army was deployed on Wednesday.

ZEC chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba, a high court judge, has flatly denied allegations of bias and rejected accusations of rigging.

Mugabe, 94, voted in Harare on Monday alongside his wife Grace after he stunned observers by calling for voters to reject ZANU-PF, his former party.

His attempts to position Grace as his successor are widely thought to have driven the military to intervene and install their favoured candidate, Mnangagwa, in power.

Mnangagwa was the clear election front-runner, benefitting from tacit military support and control of state resources. But Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor, sought to tap into the youth and urban vote.

Mnangagwa was allegedly involved in violence and intimidation during the 2008 elections when then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off after attacks claimed the lives of at least 200 of his supporters.

If no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent of the ballots cast in the first round, a run-off vote is scheduled for September 8.