Reports that a deal is in the works to allow Zimbabwe's long-standing president to gradually relinquish power surfaced Tuesday, although officials dismissed the news as nothing more than rumour.

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Jubilant supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai show their party cards in the city of Bulawayo on Tuesday as unofficial results suggest the opposition won the election. ((Associated Press))

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told a news conference that there is no truth to reports that he and President Robert Mugabe are working on a transitional arrangement. The arrangement allegedly is being struck because unofficial results now indicate that Tsvangirai won the country's presidential and legislative elections.

"Any speculation about deals, about negotiations, about reaching out, it's not there," Tsvangirai said, insisting his party will not enter into any deals before official election results are released.

"We want to know who has won what before we can claim anything," he said.

Mugabe's government toed the same line, with Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga telling BBC News that there will be "no negotiations whatsoever" until the results are through.

But other members of the government and opposition, as well as foreign observers, were privately saying Tuesday the leaders are in talks.

"I have to urge caution here, you hear one thing one moment and another thing the next but this talk of a deal is persistent, it will not go away," the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reported Tuesday from Zimbabwe.

"Something is changing here. The expectation is there will be some kind of compromise reached here in the next 24 hours."

She said the suggestion is that the leaders are agreeing to recognize the official election results, once they emerge. If no leader takes more than 51 per cent of the vote, the parties have agreed to hold a runoff, as is required in Zimbabwe. Many observers say this would be humiliating for Mugabe.

"If this [talk of a deal] proves true, this will be the face-saving measure that people have been talking about for some time now that allows for Robert Mugabe to get out of this situation, allows people to move forward," Arsenault said.

Tsvangirai has previously vowed not to entertain an alliance with Mugabe but has suggested in the past that he could negotiate an exit package for Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years.

Opposition appears to take lead

Officials with Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), said earlier Tuesday that it expected the opposition had edged out Mugabe.

ZANU-PF projections showed Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with 48.3 per cent of the vote, compared with Mugabe's 43 per cent, according to senior sources quoted anonymously by Reuters. The projections gave a third contender, Simba Makoni, eight per cent of the vote.

MDC plans to release its own tally of the votes Wednesday but Tsvangirai says he has no doubt that the party has won the presidential election.

In fact, at Tuesday's news conference, he insisted outright that he won the election.

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A defaced election poster of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe hangs on a street pole between Bulawayo and Harare on Tuesday. ((Mujahid Safodien/Associated Press) )

But the fact that no official results have been announced three days after the election has prolonged the frustration of many in the south African country.

The delay has prompted concerns that Mugabe is trying to rig the election. CBC's Laura Lynch, who is in the capital of Harare, said it could be days before the Zimbabwe Election Commission provides full results.

Partial results from the commission show the opposition party has a slight lead over Mugabe's in the parliamentary elections.  

Results released Tuesday for 142 of the country's 210 parliamentary seats showed the MDC had won 72, including five for a breakaway faction, and ZANU-PF 70.

An electoral official said on state television Tuesday that the commission was receiving presidential votes, but needed to collate and verify them before announcing results.

"We urge all Zimbabweans to remain patient as we go through this meticulous process," Lovemore Sekeramayi said.

European leaders want Mugabe out

An opposition party tally released Monday gave Tsvangirai 60 per cent of the votes, compared with 30 per cent for Mugabe. The unofficial figure was based on vote counts posted at polling stations for 128 of the 210 seats in the house of assembly, the lower chamber of parliament.

MDC's claim to victory was bolstered by unofficial results from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, which showed Tsvangirai received 49.4 per cent of the vote while Mugabe took 41.8 per cent.

"If those numbers hold true, then it would mean that there would have to be a runoff between those two men, a second round of voting," Lynch said. 

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the election results must be immediately made official.

"Results should be published immediately and the elections must be seen to be fair," Brown told reporters in London on Tuesday. "It's very important that the democratic rights of the Zimbabwe people be respected and upheld and recognized."

The European Union, meanwhile, urged Mugabe to step down to spare his nation political turmoil.

"If Mr. Mugabe continues, there will be a coup d'état," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency.

His comments were backed by the Netherlands, which hailed the possibility of an opposition victory. "Now, finally, the people of Zimbabwe have the prospect of a better life," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier on Monday also expressed concern with the election results delay and called on Zimbabwe's electoral agency to release "accurate results without further delay and respect the will of Zimbabweans."

Mugabe's past

The election has presented Mugabe, 84, the country's leader since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, with the toughest political challenge to his decades of rule.

Once praised for bringing health care and education to millions in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has been recently criticized for the economic collapse of his country that has spawned annual inflation above 100,000 per cent and unemployment of 80 per cent.

Food and fuel shortages are rampant, and the rising HIV-AIDS epidemic is said to be causing a steep decline in life expectancy.

In the past decade, Mugabe began seizing white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly to return them to the landless black majority.

But instead, Mugabe is accused of replacing a white elite population with a black one, giving the farms to relatives, friends and cronies who allowed cultivated fields to be taken over by weeds.

With files from the Associated Press