In what is being described as an excruciatingly slow vote counting process, Zimbabwe voters expectantly awaited the results of Saturday?s presidential and parliamentary elections.  Zimbabwe?s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been citing interpretations of early unofficial results as indicating victory for opponents of President Robert Mugabe, who are trying to oust him from 28 years of ruling the country.  But the executive director of the US-based Zimbabwe Trust, Annabel Hughes, says such a mood of anticipation has the potential of turning violent if expectations are not met.

I think there?s an enormous amount of tension ? excitement and tension ? on the ground.  I think that there is a very big chance of violence, especially if the election is stolen by the Robert Mugabe party,? she cautioned.

Based on its interpretation of unofficial returns, the MDC claimed victory from early precinct returns in the capital Harare, where it professed to have received 66 percent of the vote.  Other early successes pointed out by the MDC focused on previously recognized Mugabe strongholds of Mashonaland West and Masvingo, in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai?s party claimed to hold early leads.  Annabel Hughes recognizes the parallel of Kenya?s opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) asserting an early lead after last December 27?s presidential vote, only to see it vanish with an incumbent president?s declaration of victory.  But she notes that conditions for the way that violence might manifest itself could differ significantly in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

?Zimbabwe is very different from Kenya in that we do not have the diversity of ethnicity. Whereas the Kenyans attacked each other tribe by tribe, in Zimbabwe, we don?t have the same complexity.  And therefore the violence, I assume, would have pitted have-nots against the haves, political party against political party,? she noted.

Although expectations of an opposition victory in Kenya that were rudely thwarted prompted sharp ethnic clashes that resulted in about one thousand deaths, Hughes says she can understand why Zimbabwe?s MDC was not willing to show greater restraint before opting to release news of its early election lead before the final tabulations were issued.

?I wouldn?t (hold back the news) if I were them because I?m convinced that they probably are correct because the majority of Zimbabwean people want change.  They don?t have any money.  They are starving.  There?s 80 percent unemployment.  There?s 150-thousand percent inflation.  It?s a very, very difficult situation for every Zimbabwean there.  I just think people want change and therefore, they would support anyone in opposition now too, although I think that Morgan Tsvangirai certainly has the most recognizable brand,? she said.

Hughes said ZANU-PF independent breakaway presidential candidate Simba Makoni ?hasn?t really featured.  He came in really late in the game? with little opportunity to gain recognition through the media and the internet in a country that is subject to frequent power cuts.  The delay in releasing official results has boosted speculation among Zimbabweans about anticipated vote-rigging by incumbent Mugabe?s regime. The Zimbabwe Trust?s Annabel Hughes says that President Mugabe may have to face answering other lingering questions if no presidential candidate exceeds the fifty percent majority needed to win the election outright and a second-round run-off vote is needed.

?All that remains to be seen now is what is going to happen.  Are the soldiers going to be with him or against him? Is he going to call them into the streets?  At this moment, now, it is anybody?s guess about what is going to emerge.  But you can rest assured that Robert Mugabe is a very, very, very ruthless man. He has never been afraid of administering strong-arm tactics when he?s threatened,? she noted.