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By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition MDC withdrew a court challenge against President Robert Mugabe's re-election through a vote the party had denounced as fraudulent, saying on Friday it would not get a fair hearing.
Mugabe, 89, and his ZANU-PF party were declared winners of the July 31 election but the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by outgoing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had filed a motion for the constitutional court to overturn the result.
A hearing on the MDC challenge, which had alleged widespread vote-rigging and intimidation by ZANU-PF, had been planned for Saturday.
"I can confirm that we have withdrawn the presidential election petition. There are a number of reasons, including the failure by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to release critical evidence in this matter," MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said.
The decision appeared to end any hope of further action by the MDC through the courts, which Tsangirai's party have said are dominated by ZANU-PF along with other state institutions in the southern African nation, formerly known as Rhodesia.
Tsvangirai, whose party has been plunged into crisis after its third failure to unseat Mugabe through elections, has dismissed the vote as a "huge fraud" and a "coup by ballot".
In his withdrawal letter to the Constitutional Court, Tsvangirai said the MDC would continue its fight to restore democracy.
"This, sadly, as far as I am concerned entails that the Zimbabwe situation is far from resolved and on my part, as the leader of my political party, I shall endeavor to use all democratic means to bring about the successful resolution of this issue," he said.
Political analysts said Tsvangirai has been careful not to speak about street protests, fearing a crackdown on his MDC leadership by Mugabe's security forces.
Mugabe, emboldened by the election results, has vowed to press on with his plan to have foreign companies in the country turn over majority stakes to local blacks, a policy analysts said has deterred investment and been a drag on the economy.
FRESH TERM FOR VETERAN LEADER
Tsvangirai's case withdrawal paves the way for Mugabe, who is attending a summit of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) in neighboring Malawi, to be sworn in for another five-year term.
Observer missions from SADC and the African Union, while acknowledging some problems, have broadly endorsed the vote and called on all parties to accept it peacefully.
SADC leaders are also expected to endorse the poll but there has been some dissention in the ranks with member Botswana calling for an independent audit, saying evidence available so far meant the elections could not be considered acceptably free and fair.
Under Zimbabwe's constitution, a president must be sworn in within 48 hours after the constitutional court has dealt with any legal challenges.
Mugabe's lawyer Fred Gijima said the MDC's withdrawal on the eve of court hearing was unprocedural, and the court was still expected to officially make a ruling.
Mugabe, Africa's oldest and one of its longest-serving leaders, this week told critics of his re-election to "go hang", making clear he would brook no questioning of his disputed victory either from the West or his MDC rival.
In its arguments to the Constitutional Court calling for an election re-run, the MDC alleged hundreds of thousands of voters were turned away, and that the voters' roll was flawed, containing at least 870,000 duplicated names.
A preliminary assessment by the leading domestic observers' body, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), called the election "seriously compromised", saying registration flaws may have disenfranchised up to a million people out of 6.4 million registered voters.
Pointing to flaws in the July 31 vote cited by domestic observers, Western governments - especially the United States - have questioned the credibility of the election outcome and are considering whether to prolong sanctions against Mugabe.
But Mugabe is drawing comfort from African election observers who endorsed the elections as largely free and orderly and have urged Zimbabweans to move on peacefully. Western observers were barred from observing the vote.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Jon Herskovitz, Pascal Fletcher, Ron Askew)