HARARE Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition MDC have contested half the results of the March 29 parliamentary election, state media said on Wednesday, extending a stalemate that has triggered widespread violence.
Official results showed ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence in 1980, while the Movement for Democratic Change and a breakaway faction together secured enough seats to control the assembly.
The fresh challenge to the election results by the two biggest parties could change the balance of power in the new parliament. The assembly can be sworn in during an electoral court's review of contested seats, but the court can remove deputies later if it overturns any results.
The challenge will have no effect on the result of a parallel presidential ballot, however, which showed MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won 47.9 percent against President Robert Mugabe's 43.2 percent, triggering a run-off since neither candidate won an absolute majority.
The MDC has not said whether it will participate in the run-off. It believes Tsvangirai won the election outright and has ended Mugabe's 28-year rule over the once prosperous country whose economy is in ruins. If Tsvangirai does not contest the run-off, Mugabe is automatically declared the winner.
The state-run Herald newspaper said ZANU-PF and the MDC had lodged 53 and 52 petitions respectively with the electoral court, citing irregularities they believed had affected the results. The challenges come after a recount of original results in 23 constituencies confirmed ZANU-PF's defeat.
The court has six months to rule on the complaints, which dispute the results of exactly half of the 210 seats in parliament. To cope with the large number of challenges, the paper said Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku increased the number of electoral court judges from three to 20.
A day earlier, independent Zimbabwean election monitoring group ZESN expressed doubt about the credibility of the results of the presidential election and accused ZANU-PF of attacking observers.
ZESN, made up of 38 non-governmental organisations, said a one-month delay in announcing the results undermined the impartiality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
Zimbabweans, who had high hopes the election would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, are victims of a protracted political logjam, as reports of violence increase.
Tsvangirai left Zimbabwe shortly after the vote and has been touring African countries seeking support from leaders to help push out Mugabe, 84. He has left more junior party leaders in charge at home, where food and fuel shortages and hyper-inflation are affecting millions.
Mugabe faces growing pressure from Western powers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday he was talking to African states about how the world body could help make a run-off credible and expressed concern about the violence.
The regional SADC group of countries, which have the best chance of influencing Mugabe, may be ready to press him to accept U.N. monitors. However, Mugabe, accused by critics of using security crackdowns to keep a grip on power, has not budged.
The MDC accuses ZANU-PF of a violent campaign to intimidate Zimbabweans into voting for Mugabe in a run-off. The ruling party says MDC supporters have engaged in political violence.
(Writing by Caroline Drees; editing by Andrew Dobbie)