Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - President Robert Mugabe's ruling party has won the most fiercely-contested and violent parliamentary election in Zimbabwe's history, but it lost the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution.
The ZANU-PF party captured 62 of the 120 directly-elected seats in the 150-member legislature, while the fledgling opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change, captured 57 seats. A small opposition party won one seat.
International observers, analysts and diplomats in Harare called the nine-month old MDC's achievement historic.
In Zimbabwe's 20-year post-independence history, opposition parties have never held more than three seats in parliament.
Former guerrilla leader Mugabe, 76, has never previously been challenged for leadership since independence followed a bloody bush war against Rhodesian white
About 65 percent of the country's registered 5.1 million voters participated, the highest turnout since the first post-independence election in 1980.
After a campaign characterized by intimidation, the MDC announced its intention to challenge in court several of the constituency results.
In a blow to the opposition, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai lost the seat he was contesting, in the southern town of Buhera, to a ZANU-PF representative.
But a calm Tsvangirai said his failure to capture the seat should not discourage his supporters or undermine their morale.
"The message to my supporters is ... not to feel despondent but to move forward because victory is certain anyway."
He said he would now devote his energies to the next challenge - presidential elections due in two years' time.
The ruling party's greatly diminished majority is significant. Mugabe has on 16 previous occasions exploited ZANU-PF's majority to change the constitution, most recently to empower the government to seize white-owned farms.
His power to appoint 20 of the parliament's remaining 30 seats - the other 10 are held by traditional leaders - was also obtained through a constitutional amendment.
The weekend election followed a campaign described as neither free or fair by the United States, Britain, European Union and other international observers.
MDC officials said ZANU-PF pre-election intimidation and violence had clearly been effective in some rural areas, and the opposition planned either to ask for a recount or challenge in court the results in 20 constituencies won by ZANU-PF.
David Coltart, the MDC's legal adviser and a successful candidate, said in some constituencies ZANU-PF won through intimidation or by offering voters incentives like the promise of free land to poor peasants, he charged.
Tsvangirai said his party would have won by a landslide in the absence of a state-sponsored terror campaign before the poll.
"Without the subversion we would have easily won this election. There is no doubt in my mind."
As expected, the MDC performed well in urban areas. But it made inroads in some of Mugabe's rural strongholds. ZANU-PF lost six senior ministers, some of whom were considered possible presidential candidates after Mugabe retires.
Opposition leader looks into the future
Though there are fears of post-election violence, Tsvangirai sounded optimistic after the final results were announced. The strong showing by the opposition will also reduce the likelihood of post election chaos, analysts say.
Nonetheless, there are fears that the opposition many not make an impact in parliament if Mugabe fails to take their strength of support into account.
"We are on the path of change," Tsvangirai told a press conference. "I believe there are enough ZANU-PF members in parliament who believe there's a need to start on a new direction for the country."
He said anyone believing Zimbabwe's destiny rested with Mugabe needed to have their head examined.
"The opposition may not have the power, but it is certainly expected to have a strong voice in parliament and this is important in the nurturing of the new democracy," an official at the American Embassy in Harare said by telephone.
Mugabe based his campaign on race and land, saying the MDC was a front for former colonial ruler Britain, which he charged wanted to overturn his plans to seize farms from white farmers and redistribute them to black peasants.
The MDC campaign focused on the crisis in the economy which has made Mugabe deeply unpopular in many areas.
Though Zimbabwe nurtured one of Africa's strongest economies at independence and was a haven for western investors, it now a ghost of its past, the result of rampant corruption and misuse of national resources by Mugabe and his circle.
The country is now reeling from huge unemployment and soaring inflation, crippling fuel shortages and chronic shortages of hard currency.
Commercial farmers, most of them white, who managed the country's most important economic sector, have been badly hit by the take-over of hundreds of their farms by ZANU-PF loyalists.
At least 32 people died in the occupations and political violence associated with the election.