HARARE - President Robert Mugabe's party lost control of Zimbabwe's parliament yesterday and the opposition said he had been defeated for the first time in a presidential poll.
Official results, which have trickled out since last Saturday's election, showed that Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF could not outvote the combined opposition seats in parliament.
Official figures said the mainstream Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had taken 105 seats, a breakaway faction 9 and an independent 1 in the 210-seat parliament. Mugabe's Zanu-PF has so far taken 94.
Mugabe, 84, faced an unprecedented challenge in the elections after being widely blamed for the economic collapse of the once-prosperous nation which the former guerrilla leader has ruled since independence from Britain 28 years ago.
The MDC faction said its leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 50,3percent of the presidential vote and Mugabe 43,8percent according to its own tallies of results posted outside polling stations. No official results have emerged in the presidential election and the government dismissed the opposition claim.
But all the signs are that Mugabe is in the worst trouble of his rule.
MDC secretary general Tendai Biti said Tsvangirai had an absolute majority, enough for outright victory, but he would accept a second-round runoff against Mugabe "under protest".
Biti appealed to Mugabe to concede defeat and avoid "embarrassment". Analysts said the president was likely to be humiliated in a runoff. His government called the MDC claim "mischievous".
Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told Sky television: "President Mugabe is going nowhere. We are not going to be pressurised into anything."
The government has warned that victory claims before an official result would be regarded as a coup d'etat.
Matonga said: "No-one is panicking around President Mugabe. The army is very solidly behind our president, the police force as well."
Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba said the MDC was in contempt of the law by announcing results. "You are drifting in very dangerous territory and I hope the MDC is prepared for the consequences," he said.
Mugabe, known for his fierce rhetoric, has not been seen in public since voting.
The government appears to have been preparing the population for a runoff by revealing its own projections showing a second round would be required in the statutory three weeks after last Saturday's vote.
Both Tsvangirai and the government have dismissed widespread speculation that the MDC was negotiating with Zanu-PF for a managed exit for Mugabe.
The state-owned Herald newspaper said yesterday projections for the presidential election showed Mugabe would fail to win an outright majority for the first time in nearly three decades.
The prospect of a runoff has raised fears inside and outside Zimbabwe that the hiatus before a new vote would spark serious violence between security forces and militia loyal to Mugabe and MDC supporters.
The Herald also said the government had decided to immediately implement tax relief to cushion the effect of runaway inflation, officially more than 100000percent - the world's highest rate.
The opposition and international observers said Mugabe rigged the last presidential election in 2002.
Apart from a virtually worthless currency, Zimbabweans are suffering food and fuel shortages and an HIV-Aids epidemic.
The opposition, including former Finance Minister Simba Makoni, who stood as a third candidate, is expected to unite behind Tsvangirai if there is a runoff.