Harare - Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said on Friday it could take to the streets to challenge President Robert Mugabe's victory in an election it rejects as a farce and which faces scepticism from the West.
No results of the presidential vote on 31 July have been announced. But Mugabe's Zanu-PF has already claimed a resounding win and interim tallies of the parliamentary count suggest a massive victory for the 89-year-old, Africa's oldest president, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
While the African Union's monitoring mission chief has called Wednesday's peaceful polls generally "free and fair" - Western observers were kept out by Harare - domestic monitors have described them as "seriously compromised" by registration flaws that may have disenfranchised up to a million people.Elections 2013 - HAVE YOUR SAY
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Observers from the Southern African Development Community, a regional grouping, described the elections as "free and peaceful" and called on MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to accept the result.
Tsvangirai, who faces political annihilation in his third attempt to oust Mugabe at the ballot box, has already denounced the election as a "huge farce" marked by polling day irregularities and intimidation by Zanu-PF.
Western rejection of the regional African verdict on the Zimbabwean election could stir tensions with the continent, while acceptance of Mugabe's victory will be slammed in countries where he is derided as a ruthless despot responsible for rights abuses and trashing the economy.
The mood on the streets of the capital Harare was subdued on Friday as the MDC's top leadership met at its headquarters to chart their next move, with everything from a legal challenge to street protests on the table.
"Demonstrations and mass action are options," party spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora said.
Some disappointed voters expressed disbelief at the election outcome. "This is daylight robbery, but I think the MDC should have realised that, without violence, Zanu-PF would still do something to cheat," said McDonald Sibanda, a 34-year old insurance salesman.
"I'm disgusted by all this."
An MDC protest campaign against the results could elicit a fierce response from security forces and pro-Mugabe militias, who were accused of killing 200 MDC supporters after Mugabe lost the first round of the last election in 2008.
"We didn't expect this to happen," one senior MDC official who lost his seat told Reuters. "We're gutted."
Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler Britain, a sharp critic of Mugabe in the past, said it was concerned that Zimbabwe had not enacted important electoral reforms before the vote and by reports that large numbers of voters had been turned away.
The US government, which maintains sanctions in place against Mugabe, said "a peaceful and orderly election day does not by itself guarantee a free and fair outcome".
"Now the critical test is whether voting tabulation is conducted in a credible and transparent manner, and whether the outcome truly reflects the will of the people of Zimbabwe," US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said in Washington.
Europe and the United States now face the awkward decision of what to do with the sanctions they have in place against Mugabe and his inner circle.
What will west do?
The Western scepticism contrasted with the assessment made by the AU election observer team leader, former Nigerian military leader and civilian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who while acknowledging "minor incidents" surrounding the July 31 poll said they were not enough to affect the overall result.
Obasanjo, whose own re-election in Nigeria in 2003 was marked by violence and widespread fraud allegations, broadly declared Zimbabwe's elections 'free and fair' on Wednesday within half an hour of the polls closing. He repeated that line after a meeting with Mugabe on Thursday.
Tsvangirai has emphatically called the election "not credible" and appealed to the AU to investigate.
But Obasanjo declined to comment on his assertion, calling him "an interested party".
The AU verdict, echoed by President Jacob Zuma of Zimbabwe's powerful neighbour South Africa, suggest the MDC's appeals for external pressure on Mugabe may be falling on deaf ears
Zuma, main guarantor of the unity government in Zimbabwe brokered after the 2008 unrest, focused on the orderly conduct of the poll. He ignored Mugabe's refusal to heed calls from the MDC and international observers to reform bias in the state media and security forces, conditions specifically stipulated in the unity administration deal.
"Something good has happened in Zimbabwe. The elections were so peaceful," he told the SABC state broadcaster.
But a Mugabe victory would pose problems for the West.
"This leaves the EU and US in an extremely difficult situation," said Piers Pigou, director of the southern Africa project of International Crisis Group in Johannesburg.
The European Union, which relaxed some sanctions early this year after a new constitution was approved in a referendum, said it was too early to assess the election's fairness.
Given the sanctions, the view from the West is key to the future of Zimbabwe's economy, which is still struggling with the aftermath of a decade-long slump and hyperinflation that ended in 2009 when the worthless Zimbabwe dollar was scrapped.
For all Zimbabwe election stories please visit our Zimbabwe Special Report Page.