Consultations between the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and representatives of presidential candidates in the country's March 29 ballot got under way Thursday in preparation for the official release of results, but leaks of the commission's figures indicated an inconclusive outcome and pointed to a run-off election.
Sources in the talks told AFP that the commission informed representatives of the candidates that opposition contender Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled President Robert Mugabe with 47.8% of votes vs. 43.2%, but failed to surmount the hurdle of 50% plus one vote required for a first-round victory. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change formation said insisted that he polled 50.3% of the vote or more.
Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told the Associated Press that, "As far as I'm concerned, there is going to be a runoff. We have got our own results."
Tsvangirai himself has ruled out taking part in a presidential runoff, and his secretary general, Tendai Biti, reiterated Thursday in an interview with VOA that there was no need for a run-off because Tsvangirai had achieved an outright victory.
Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe told AP from Johannesburg, from which the MDC leadership has been operating: "If Robert Mugabe cannot accept the real results now, what's the guarantee he'll accept the real results after a run-off?"
But refusal to contest a run-off could hand victory to Mr. Mugabe by forfeit.
The U.S. government weighed in Thursday as well, saying a run-off election could not be fair with pro-government militants terrorizing opposition members and supporters.
"It would almost be impossible to hold (a run-off) given the current campaign of state-orchestrated violence and intimidation against the political opposition," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.
The latest figures emerged as the electoral commission began what it described as a "verification" of its long-awaited results by candidates or their representatives.
Tsvangirai was represented by his election agent, Chris Mbanga, while Mr. Mugabe was represented by Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. Independent candidate Simba Makoni saw to the verification process himself.
Elsewhere, Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri accused MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti of urging and abetting political violence by publicly contending that Tsvangirai had won the election outright. Chihuri said police are keen to interview Biti on the matter, charging that he had violated the country's Electoral Act.
Biti had written to Chihuri earlier saying police were selectively applying the law in arresting only opposition supporters amid widespread post-election violence.
Biti told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the MDC has no confidence in the electoral commission, insisting Tsvangirai is the winner.
The prospect of a runoff in the current environment worries international observers.
Dublin-based political analyst Simon Roughneen of the International Relations Security Network, a former humanitarian worker in Africa, told VOA reporter Joe De Capua that rising tensions make a presidential run-off contest highly problematical.