Mugabe sworn into office

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term today, just hours after officials announced that he had overwhelmingly won an election many countries have condemned as a sham. His main rival dismissed the inauguration and said the next step would be power-sharing talks.

As dignitaries watched under a red-carpeted tent at the State House complex, Mr Mugabe held a Bible and stood before a red-robed, white-wigged judge to swear to uphold his nation’s laws, “so help me God”. He then sat amid cheering supporters to sign documents.

“The inauguration is meaningless,” Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said. “The world has said so, Zimbabwe has said so. So it’s an exercise in self-delusion.”

The 84-year-old Mr Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president since independence from Britain in 1980, was expected to depart almost immediately for an African Union summit that opens tomorrow in Egypt. There, he can expect to come under pressure from other African leaders to negotiate a power sharing agreement with Mr Tsvangirai, who said he believed members of the ruling ZANU-PF party were ready for talks.

“I think that the reality has dawned on all the elites in ZANU-PF,” Mr Tsvangirai said. “Without negotiating with the MDC this is a dead-end.”

African and other world leaders had condemned Friday’s presidential run-off, in which Mr Mugabe was the only candidate. It followed a campaign during which opposition supporters were the targets of brutal state-sponsored violence that left more than 80 dead and forced some 200,000 to flee their homes, said human rights groups. Mr Tsvangirai had withdrawn from the race because of the violence.

Total results, according to the electoral commission, were more than 2 million votes for Mr Mugabe, and 233,000 for Mr Tsvangirai. Turnout was put at about 42%, and 131,000 ballots had been defaced or otherwise spoiled. Neither candidate got credit for the spoiled ballots.

Independent observers had said many of those who did go to the polls voted out of fear, and Mr Tsvangirai’s supporters may have spoiled their ballots rather than vote for Mr Mugabe.

In Bulawayo, for instance, official results showed Mr Mugabe got 21,127 votes, Mr Tsvangirai 13,291, while 9,166 ballots were spoiled. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second main city and an opposition stronghold.

A high number of spoiled ballots had been noted earlier today by Marwick Khumalo, a member of parliament from Swaziland who led a team of election observers from across the continent under the auspices of the AU-sponsored Pan-African Parliament. Mr Khumalo said some ballots were defaced with “unpalatable messages”. He refused to elaborate, but left the impression the messages expressed hostility toward Mr Mugabe.

Mr Khumalo said: “The current atmosphere prevailing in the country did not give rise to the conduct of free, fair and credible elections.”

In contrast, observers from the Southern African Development Community have been split over whether to declare the vote free and fair, reflecting dissension among Mr Mugabe’s neighbours over how hard to push for reform.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Mugabe supporters beat people who couldn’t prove they voted.

Mr Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of presidential voting in March, but not enough for an outright victory. Official results in March gave Mr Tsvangirai more than 47% of the vote and Mr Mugabe 43. Results Sunday gave Mr Mugabe 85% of the vote.

Mr Mugabe said on the eve of the vote he was open to talks, but pressed ahead with the election, apparently hoping a victory would give him leverage at the negotiating table. It now appears he will be able to draw little legitimacy from the run-off.

Mr Khumalo, the observer, urged African and regional leaders to “engage the broader political leadership in Zimbabwe into a negotiated transitional settlement.”

With the election discredited and attention turning to the possibility of negotiations, Mr Mugabe’s role in any future government could be a sticking point.

Mr Tsvangirai said in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph that Mr Mugabe might be allowed to stay on as ceremonial president of a transitional government, with himself as executive prime minister.

“It’s being considered within our structures,” the paper quoted Mr Tsvangirai as saying.

Human Rights Watch in its statement today joined growing calls for the African Union to send peacekeepers to Zimbabwe to stop the violence.

The group also urged African leaders to appoint a group of impartial eminent persons to replace the “failed” mediation effort of South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mr Mbeki has been unwilling to publicly criticise Mr Mugabe even as other African leaders have been increasingly vocal in their denunciations. Mr Mbeki, appointed by the southern African regional bloc to mediate in the Zimbabwe crisis, has stuck with his “quiet diplomacy” approach.

On Saturday, the vice president of Zimbabwe’s opposition, Thokozani Khupe, had called for AU peacekeepers and mediation.

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