LILONGWE - Southern African leaders on Sunday endorsed the re-election of veteran President Robert Mugabe, brushing aside a campaign from Zimbabwe's opposition MDC who said the vote July was rigged and its results should be overturned.
The decision by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), which helped broker a power-sharing deal after disputed elections in 2008, clears the way for Mugabe, 89, to be sworn as early as this week for a fresh five-year term.
"The summit congratulated his honourable Robert Mugabe for winning the election in Zimbabwe," a South African foreign ministry official said.
At its meeting in Malawi's capital Lilongwe, the group also named Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, as its deputy chairman and said it would hold a summit next year in Zimbabwe's capital.
Unlike the SADC and the African Union observer missions, which broadly endorsed the vote, the preliminary assessment by the leading domestic observers' body called the election "seriously compromised".
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said registration flaws may have disenfranchised up to a million people out of 6.4 million registered voters.
"We were not expecting SADC to immediately tell Mugabe to call fresh elections, but we are going to continue lobbying, while at home we apply various forms of political pressure to achieve democracy," a spokesman for Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Douglas Mwonzora, told Reuters.
The MDC on Friday withdrew a court challenge against the re-election, saying it would not get a fair hearing. It sent delegates to Lilongwe to raise its objections.
Lawyers said the Constitutional Court was expected on Monday to formally accept the MDC's withdrawal application, paving the way for Mugabe to be sworn in for a new five-year term.
Under the constitution, a president has to be sworn in within 48 hours of the constitutional court decision.
Political analysts said outgoing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been careful not to speak about street protests, fearing a crackdown on his MDC leadership by Mugabe's security forces.
Former colonial power Britain had urged SADC to look carefully at accusations of fraud in last month's poll and said it was disappointed opposition parties had withdrawn its legal challenge.
Britain, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against Mugabe and senior ZANU-PF leaders for human rights violations and suspected vote rigging and suspected rigging of previous elections.