HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Botswana emerged Tuesday as a rare African voice of criticism of Zimbabwe's disputed election, saying it was unfair and warning the region not to flout its own guidelines by accepting the result.
In breaking ranks with other African observers, Botswana said the region "should not create the undesirable precedent of permitting exceptions to its own rules" on the conduct of Zimbabwe's voting. In a statement in Harare, Botswana said its 80 poll observers concluded that conditions for free and fair elections were not met because of widespread irregularities.
The opposition and non-governmental groups have alleged massive vote-rigging enabled President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party to win a landslide over its challenger, the Movement for Democratic Change party. Mugabe's supporters counter that such allegations are part of a smear campaign by opponents.
The announcement by sparsely populated Botswana, which shares a border with Zimbabwe, contrasted with cautious support for last week's vote from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation bloc that includes Botswana.
But it gave a hint of the uneasiness over the vote in Zimbabwe among neighbors that have issued general calls for reform and reconciliation there while refraining from sanctions and harsh criticism that could disrupt regional trade and relationships.
Mugabe, who has been in power for 33 years and triumphed in violent elections in 2008, has sparred with the West over alleged human rights abuses by his government. His domestic credibility is based in part on his record as a guerrilla fighter against white minority rule, though Zimbabwe has suffered economic turmoil and political instability over the years, prompting many people to leave the country.
Botswana's criticism of the Zimbabwean elections contrasts with the approval of the process from Tanzania, Kenya and other countries. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, the chief mediator on Zimbabwe, congratulated Mugabe. Britain, the United States and other Western countries have criticized the vote.
Botswana has won international recognition for decades of political stability and economic management that has left it with a balance of payments surplus envied by its neighbors. The ruling party has won all elections since independence in the 1960s.
The country has close ties with Western governments and Britain, the former colonial power despised by Mugabe and other militant African leaders in the post-independence era. Botswana's statement criticized the late release of voters' lists, alleging it prevented fair scrutiny of the data. The Botswana observers noted irregularities over various forms of identification used to permit individuals to vote and "credible allegations" that many eligible voters were turned away from polling stations.
It was clear "the process was undermined by these and other irregularities," the Botswana government said. It called for an independent audit of the election, saying it could help find ways to proceed in a sharply divided Zimbabwe.
Outgoing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 61, has declared the vote "null and void" and vowed his former opposition party will not participate in any government institutions if a court challenge does not overturn the disputed results.
In recent years, the SADC grouping has adopted guidelines for member countries that lay out a framework for free elections. Zimbabwe and Botswana are among its members. Mugabe, 89, garnered 61 percent of the presidential vote to Tsvangirai's 34 percent on Wednesday. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change won 50 parliament seats to 158 captured by Mugabe's party. Two independent candidates won seats in the 210-seat parliament.
Mugabe was forced by regional leaders to form a shaky power-sharing coalition with Tsvangirai after the turbulent elections in 2008.