Zimbabwe's Mugabe Ready for Runoff Amid Pressure to Step Down

State media gave Zimbabweans a hint of how President Robert Mugabe's embattled party might wage its campaign for a presidential runoff, with stories Thursday portraying the opposition as divided and controlled by former colonial ruler Britain.

Mugabe's Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the 84-year-old leader was ready for a runoff. The opposition claims it won the presidential race outright, and official results show it won the most parliament seats.

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"President Mugabe is going to fight. He is not going anywhere. He has not lost," Matonga told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We are going to go hard and fight and get the majority required."

Mugabe has ruled since his guerrilla army helped force an end to white minority rule in Rhodesia and bring about an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. On Thursday, he was shown on state television meeting African Union election observers, his first public appearance since the elections.

While the election commission has issued results for the parliamentary races held alongside the presidential race, it has yet to release any presidential count.

"We need to see an official tally, see it soon and have assurances made that this is actually a correct counting of the votes," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

Independent observers say their own projection based on results posted at a representative sample of polling stations showed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes, but not enough to avoid a runoff, which would have to be held within 21 days of the first round.

A commission member indicated presidential results would be announced Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The commission said it still was receiving ballot boxes from the provinces, raising questions about where those votes had been since Saturday's elections, amid charges there was a plot to rig the results. Western election observers have accused Mugabe of stealing previous elections.

On Wednesday, official election returns showed Mugabe's ZANU-PF party had lost its parliamentary majority. The state-owned Herald newspaper, which reflects government and ruling party thinking, said Thursday the parliamentary race was a "photo finish" and stressed the split in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai loyalists won seats, as did members of a breakaway MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara.

Mugabe has overseen the destruction of a thriving economy. The unraveling began when he ordered the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly to return them to the landless black majority. Instead, Mugabe replaced a white elite with a black one, giving the farms to relatives, friends and cronies who allowed cultivated fields to be taken over by weeds.

Today, a third of the population depends on imported food handouts. Another third has fled the country and 80 percent is jobless. Inflation is the highest in the world at more than 100,000 percent and people suffer crippling shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 35 years.

Still, about half of Zimbabweans who voted in weekend elections chose the ruling ZANU-PF party.

On Thursday, The Herald charged that Tsvangirai would hand back farmland to the whites. Tsvangirai has not said that, promising instead an equitable distribution of land to people who know how to farm.

The Herald said white farmers had returned from Zambia and Mozambique and were threatening to evict blacks. It quoted the war veterans association that spearheaded violent land grabs as saying, "We will be left with no option except to take up arms and defend our pieces of land."

Mugabe blames former colonizer Britain and other Western nations for the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy. Targeted Western sanctions, though, only involve visa bans and frozen bank accounts for Mugabe and about 100 of his allies.

Mugabe calls opposition leaders stooges and puppets of Britain. The Herald said "the British government and Prime Minister Gordon Brown have now come out in the open as the real power behind MDC-Tsvangirai."

Religious leaders and diplomats were involved in a flurry of initiatives Thursday to try to persuade Mugabe to step down. Diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said Western leaders were contacting southern African leaders. Amani Countess of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum said religious leaders also were asking counterparts in the region to pressure presidents to approach Mugabe.