By MacDonald Dzirutwe
Zimbabwe's top court will on Friday issue its verdict on whether to overturn or uphold President Emmerson Mnangagwa's July 30 election victory, which his main challenger insists was rigged.
Crowds gathered on Wednesday around screens outside Zimbabwe's top court to watch a legal showdown, as lawyers for Mnangagwa and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa squared off before nine Constitutional Court judges.
Many more around the country were glued to live television and online footage of the hearing, the first time the public has seen the inner workings of the court.
Riot police blocked roads leading to the court in the capital Harare and vehicles carrying water cannon were parked nearby.
Chamisa, 40, says the first vote since the overthrow of Robert Mugabe in a November coup was rigged by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The commission and Mnangagwa say there was no foul play.
Chief Justice Luke Malaba said the Constitutional Court would announce its ruling at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Friday. It could throw the case out, declare a new winner or order a fresh election within 60 days.
Wednesday's hearing was cast as a major test of the independence of the highest court, whose verdict is final.
Mnangagwa and Chamisa were not at the hearing in person but their lawyers and the ZEC's faced off in the packed courtroom.
Chamisa's lead lawyer Thabani Mpofu argued that presidential election results announced by the ZEC were different to those it had submitted in its court papers.
Mpofu said that at the time of the presidential election, the commission had inflated Mnangagwa's figures by 69,000 votes, urging the court to invalidate the results and trigger a new poll.
"MOST IMPORTANT CASE"
The ZEC's lawyer Tawanda Kanengoni said the election board had made some "clerical data capture errors" in counting votes but its new figures, which gave Mnangagwa 50.67 percent rather than its initial 50.8 percent, would not have changed the poll's outcome.
"There is no evidence brought before the court to substantiate the allegations that have been made," Mnangagwa's lawyer Lewis Uriri said in response.
Before the hearing started, Chamisa's lawyers accused Zimbabwe's Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi of refusing to issue temporary work permits to three South African members of their team.
The judges allowed the three to keep working with the team in court. Ziyambi declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
"The jurisprudential and political burden that weighs heavily on the shoulders of each of the Constitutional Court judges today is that they are about to adjudicate by far the most important case of their legal careers," Welshman Ncube, a Chamisa ally and constitutional lawyer, wrote on Twitter.
Hopes had been high before the election that it would end Zimbabwe's pariah status and launch an economic recovery, but unrest in the aftermath has left the country deeply divided and brought back uncomfortable reminders of its violent past.
Mnangagwa has urged Zimbabwe to unite behind him but questions remain over the deaths of six people in an army crackdown on protests against the ruling party's victory.
Reuters has obtained details about a post-election rift between Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga that has added to anxieties among Western governments and potential foreign investors.
Chamisa said this week the court case was only one of the routes he could take "to protect the people's vote", and said that if he lost, he would consider peaceful street protests against Mnangagwa.
(Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Roche)