HARARE (Reuters) – President Emmerson Mnangagwa called on Friday for Zimbabwe to unite behind him after he was declared winner of national elections, but the opposition leader insisted he had won and said he would use all means necessary to challenge the result.
Mnangagwa said his victory was won fairly and he had nothing to hide, although he criticised chaotic scenes where police shouting “clear out” chased away journalists waiting for a briefing by his main presidential election rival Nelson Chamisa.
Chamisa later told reporters Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu-PF had used deadly violence against opposition supporters following the vote because it had lost the election — the first since the army removed 94-year-old Robert Mugabe from office in November.
“We are going to explore all necessary means, legal and constitutional, to ensure that the will of the people is protected,” Chamisa said.
Voting passed off relatively smoothly on the day, raising hopes of a break from a history of disputed and violent polls.
But an army crackdown on opposition supporters in which six people were killed and opposition claims that the vote was rigged revealed the deep rifts in Zimbabwean society that developed during Mugabe’s four decades in power, when the security forces became a byword for heavy-handedness.
After three days of claims and counterclaims, 75-year-old Mnangagwa – a former spy chief under Mugabe – secured victory.
He polled 2.46 million votes against 2.15 million for 40-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced in the early hours of Friday morning.
“This is a new beginning. Let us join hands, in peace, unity and love, and together build a new Zimbabwe for all,” Mnangagwa said on Twitter.
Later, after the ruckus ahead of Chamisa’s news conference, he added: “The scenes today at the Bronte Hotel have no place in our society and we are urgently investigating the matter to understand exactly what happened,” Mnangagwa wrote on Twitter.
“We won the election freely and fairly, and have nothing to hide or fear. Anyone is free to address the media at any time.”
But his efforts to rehabilitate the image of a country synonymous with political repression and economic collapse were undermined by a police raid on the headquarters of Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Friday’s dispersal of journalists by riot police at Chamisa’s news conference.
Mnangagwa received 50.8 percent of the vote, just edging over the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff. The delays in announcing the presidential results and the narrow margin of victory fuelled the opposition accusations of rigging.
He now faces the challenge of persuading the international community that the army crackdown and lapses in the election process will not derail his promise of political and economic reforms needed to fix a moribund economy.
European Union observers said on Wednesday the elections had several problems, including media bias, voter intimidation, and mistrust in the electoral commission. Its final assessment will be critical in determining whether Zimbabwe can return into the international fold.
Chamisa, who earlier accused the election commission of trying to rig the vote, said on Friday it should release “proper and verified” results.
He told a news conference he would pursue all legal means necessary to challenge the result, which had serious legitimacy problems. He declined to divulge the specific action that his party would take to challenge the outcome of the election.
Christopher Dielmann, economist at Exotix Capital, said the immediate priorities for Mnangagwa and his government would be to continue on the path of restoring the economy and boosting exports, helped by international engagement.
“By many accounts, this imperfect election delivered sufficient transparency, especially in relation to past results in the country, that should allow reengagement to occur relatively smoothly.”
Charles Laurie, head of country risk for Verisk Maplecroft, said for international investors, Zimbabwe’s election was less about an MDC or a ZANU-PF win, and far more about electing a legitimate, stable and trustworthy leader.
“There is a bleak pall over Mnangagwa’s win,” he said.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, current chair of the Southern African Development Community, urged all Zimbabweans to accept the poll results.
The streets of the capital Harare were quiet early on Friday, with traffic thinner than usual. Water cannon and anti-riot police remained outside the MDC offices, a reminder of the clashes between opposition and the security forces this week.
“We are not happy with this election but what can we do?” said Patience Sithole, a cleaner in Harare.
“We don’t trust these observers, we don’t trust these courts. I’m not sure things will ever change in Zimbabwe.”
The Herald newspaper, which acts as a mouthpiece for the government, hailed the election as reflecting the will of the majority and admonished the opposition.
“Unfortunately in Zimbabwe we have allowed to grow and flourish a culture of rabble-rousing and sham protests of alleged rigging whenever a party loses that this has become a default mode in the opposition,” a Herald editorial said.