Fearing election defeat, aides said to have inflated vote totals : New doubts cast on Mugabe victory

PARIS: New allegations that Robert Mugabe won last month's presidential election by fraud are presenting the United States, the Commonwealth and African governments with a delicate political problem: How to pressure Mugabe to relinquish power without triggering chaos in Zimbabwe.

The new fraud charges center on what happened in the hours before the Mugabe government's official announcement that he had won the March 9-11 election with 53 percent of the vote. According to Western officials who have interviewed reliable sources inside Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU-PF Party manipulated those reported results through a "command center" in the capital, Harare, that was supervised by two of Mugabe's top aides: the minister of state for national security, Nicholas Goche, and the ZANU-PF secretary for administration, Emmerson Mnangawa.

According to officials who have seen detailed intelligence reports on the new charges, officials at the ZANU-PF command center realized that despite attempts to reduce the opposition vote Mugabe was running well behind and was in danger of losing by 200,000 to 300,000 votes. The Mugabe operatives were said to have been surprised by how well the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his Movement for Democratic Change were doing in Mashonaland, a rural area in central Zimbabwe that was expected to back Mugabe.

Fearing they would lose, officials in the ZANU-PF command center "fiddled the figures" by adding tens of thousands of names to Mugabe's total before the ballots were sent on to the Registrar-General, Tobaiwa Mudede, for a final count, according to an official who has reviewed the evidence gathered by Zimbabwean insiders.

During the period when votes were being counted, there was a sudden jump in the total votes cast, from 2.4 million to 2.9 million, according to R.W. Johnson, a former Oxford professor who was in Zimbabwe at the time covering the elections for a British newspaper. Johnson said Monday in a telephone interview from South Africa that the sudden increase was "totally unexplained" at the time, and was "bigger than the president's winning margin." The final total of votes cast was just over 3 million.

These inside accounts suggest that there may have been an extra layer of manipulation in the Zimbabwe election process — beyond the intimidation and violence that already has drawn worldwide condemnation. The new reports indicate that Mugabe would have lost even after what observers described as a massive ZANU-PF campaign to intimidate opposition voters, especially in urban areas.

Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since it became independent in 1980, has dismissed charges of improprieties in the election process and has called his victory a "stunning blow to imperialism."

The new reports sharpen the dilemma for other governments in the region, especially those of South Africa and Nigeria. They reluctantly agreed to back a Commonwealth decision March 19 to suspend Zimbabwe for one year. That decision followed reports by Commonwealth observers that Mugabe's victory had been "marred by a high level of politically motivated violence."

The political choice is especially delicate for the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, whose nation borders Zimbabwe and has been a crucial ally for Mugabe in the past. The South Africans, joined by Nigeria, had initially backed Mugabe's victory claims but then switched to join Australia in urging the Commonwealth sanctions. Analysts believe that continued pressure by Mbeki could force political change in Zimbabwe and reduce the flight by white-owned businesses and individuals from that country and South Africa.

Immediately after Mugabe announced victory, the United States rejected the election as "neither free nor fair." The State Department said in that March 12 statement that it was considering expanding its own existing economic sanctions against Mugabe's regime.

The new allegations about vote-rigging have been shared with the United States, Britain, Australia and some other Commonwealth countries. Officials who had been briefed on the reports made them available last week to the International Herald Tribune.

Several studies of the Zimbabwe election have pointed to massive irregularities, both in the run-up to the vote and in the actual tabulation of ballots.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, said in a report issued in early March that in the weeks before the election, 83 of its rallies had been disrupted or canceled, and that its "members and people perceived to be supporters were tortured, beaten and killed."

The MDC report also charged that prior to the election, "the number of polling stations was vastly reduced in urban areas and increased in rural areas." The report also contended that MDC operatives "were prevented by ZANU-PF militia from deploying polling agents in 52 percent of rural polling stations."

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