Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change said on Friday it could take to the streets to challenge President Robert Mugabe's victory in elections it rejects as a farce and which face skepticism from the West.
No results of the presidential vote on July 31 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.
Observers from the Southern African Development Community, a regional group, described the elections as "free and peaceful" and urged Movement for Democratic Change (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 vote as a "huge farce" marred by polling day irregularities and intimidation by ZANU-PF.
Western rejection of the regional African verdict on the election could stir tensions with the continent. Acceptance of Mugabe's victory will be criticized in countries that say he is a despot guilty of rights abuses and ruining the economy.
The mood on the streets of the capital Harare was subdued on Friday as the MDC leadership met to chart the next move, with everything from a legal challenge to street protests on the table.
"Demonstrations and mass action are options," party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said.
Some disappointed voters expressed disbelief at the election outcome. "This is daylight robbery, but I think the MDC should have realized 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 election 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.
Justice minister and ZANU-PF deputy legal affairs secretary Patrick Chinamasa scoffed at the MDC criticism of the vote.
"Really? When 3.95 million people go to vote in cold weather you call it a farce?" he told a news conference. Chinamasa said defeated candidates could take their complaints to the courts.
He also hinted that ZANU-PF could, if the election confirms its new two-thirds majority in parliament, seek to amend Zimbabwe's revised constitution adopted earlier this year, which now limits presidential terms to two five-year stints.
"The constitution may need cleaning up," he said, although the essence of the charter would not be changed.
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.
The U.S. government, which maintains sanctions 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," U.S. State Department spokeswoman 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 skepticism 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.
Tsvangirai has called the election "not credible" and appealed to the AU to investigate.
But Obasanjo, whose own re-election in Nigeria in 2003 was marked by violence and widespread fraud allegations, declined to comment on the MDC leader's assertion, calling him "an interested party".
The AU verdict, echoed by President Jacob Zuma of Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor South Africa, suggests 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, chose to focus on the orderly conduct of the poll. "Something good has happened in Zimbabwe. The elections were so peaceful," he told broadcaster SABC.
But a Mugabe victory would pose problems for the West.
"This leaves the EU and U.S. 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.