If President Robert Mugabe does not accept defeat in Zimbabwe's still undecided elections, it could spark a number of different scenarios that could throw the country into turmoil.
The latest official election results show Zimbabwe's ruling party has lost its control of parliament. On Wednesday, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) publicly declared that it had won 50.3 percent of the votes counted and that its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, would be the next president of the country.
Mugabe has not yet conceded defeat, and his ruling ZANU-PF party said statements like these were tantamount to a staging a coup.
There has been a news blackout in Zimbabwe since Sunday, and it is unclear what will happen next.
But speculation is rife that the 84-year-old Mugabe and his security apparatus are in negotiations with opposition leaders and South African diplomats to push him from power. The opposition has denied such negotiations are taking place.
Zimbabwean political analyst and human rights lawyer Daniel Molokele said it is likely that officials are looking behind the scenes for a face-saving exit from power for the tyrant.
“He could be asking for immunity from prosecution for corruption and crimes against humanity committed during his years in power,” Molokele said. “The genocide in Matabeleland would be one of the main issues at stake.”
In the early 1980s, up to 20,000 members of Zimbabwe’s minority Matabele tribe were slaughtered by soldiers of Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in response to what the government called an armed uprising. Mugabe has never acknowledged the incident, which some have called genocide.
Independent observers believe Saturday’s election, still not fully released by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, was a humiliating defeat for the dictator who has been in power since Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, declared independence from white rule in 1980.
Another rumor circulating is that Mugabe, aware of his possible defeat, may try to hold onto power by declaring himself the winner and calling in the military to crush any protest.
But others say yet another scenario may be playing out: that Mugabe has already made plans to flee to Malaysia, where he had a close relationship for many years with former dictator Mahathir Mohamad.
Stanford Mukasa, a journalism professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, believes Mugabe is running scared.
“There is panic behind the scenes. He sees his party is splitting up, and he is realizing that the military is also divided between supporting him and accepting a new government. The top brass might still support Mugabe, but ordinary soldiers who have not been paid for months and have seen the welfare of their families disappear are not going to obey.”
Mukasa believes that the long delay between the voting on Saturday and the announcement of the results has partly been to buy time for ruling party bigwigs to filter stolen money out the country and hide traces of complicity in past crimes.
“The top echelons have been living off the fat of the land for so long. They have money in foreign bank accounts that they want to keep. They are also beginning to worry that if there is a change, ordinary people will come for revenge for atrocities committed against them over the years," Mukasa said.
"I do not think it will be a situation like Kenya. Zimbabweans are a peaceful people, but the possibility for some retribution is there.”
Regardless of the outcome for Mugabe, the legacy he leaves is a country ruined.
Once considered the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is now dependent on food aid and suffers shortages of everything from fuel and electricity to soap and clean water.
Eighty percent of the population is unemployed and the inflation rate is running at more than 100,000 percent, the highest in the world. As many as 4 million of the country's 13 million people live as refugees in neighboring countries, most of them in South Africa, where they have put strain on that country's economy and contributed to its rising crime rate.
All of which means that the task facing the MDC — should it gain power — will be enormous.
“Where to start?” said Handel Mlilo, Chief U.S. Representative for the MDC in Washington, and a business communications consultant. “For the first years the focus will have to be on feeding people, fixing a ruined infrastructure, and restoring social services such as hospitals. At the same time we will need to encourage refugees to return and begin to attract investment. The people will need jobs.”
And yet many hope the power shift will signal the end to the country's crisis.
The MDC, unlike many other populist African political parties, is not tied to an outdated socialist ideology. “We are a free-market based party,” Mlilo said. “We have looked around the world and we know what works. Unlike the current regime we will have respect for private property rights and we will encourage private business.”
Mlilo also said that white farmers, who were evicted from their land since 2000 in the commercial farm invasions launched by Mugabe that started the economic collapse, will have to be compensated, a far cry from the angry rhetoric of Mugabe.
Molokele goes further. “The MDC is not a tribal or race-based party," he said. "It sprung up as an anti-Mugabe movement and as such it includes labor union activists, civic rights groups, leading business people and even white farmers.
"At least three of their newly elected MPs will be white," he said. "These are all reasons to be positive.”