AS the delay in announcing the results of Zimbabweâ€™s presidential election stretched out endlessly, the political jokes proliferated across southern Africa.
The best ones were based on the old “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke.
The correct answer is “to get to the other side”, but the protagonists in the Zimbabwean crisis were all given lines that mocked the positions they had taken.
Thus, for example, President Robert Mugabe, who lost the election but wouldnâ€™t admit it: “The chicken will never be allowed to cross the road.
Not in my lifetime! Let those that run away to Bush and Brown do so. Not my chicken! My chicken will never cross the road. It will never be colonised again!”
Or Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC): “We have irrefutable evidence from those who were at the road that the chicken has, indeed, without any shadow of doubt, crossed the road. I hereby declare that Chicken, Huku, Inkuku is now the legitimate resident of the other side of the road.”
Or Didymus Mutasa, the minister of national security: “I do not think it crossed the road. If it crossed the road itâ€™s because the white farmer dragged it. But we cannot allow that to happen. It will have to come back.”
Finally, on May 2, 34 days after the vote, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission released the results of the presidential election.
Predictably, it showed that while opposition leader Morgan Tsvangiraiâ€™s 47,9% of the votes put him almost 5% ahead of Robert Mugabe, he had not cleared the 50% hurdle and so would have to face Mugabe again in a run-off.
The MDC claims that the delay was imposed so that the ruling Zanu PF party could tamper with the results, and that Tsvangirai really won 50,3% of the votes in the first round.
He has been sheltering in South Africa for fear that Mugabeâ€™s thugs will beat him up again or even kill him, so it may be some days before the party leaders decide whether to run again in a second round â€” but the real Didymus Mutasa cruelly outlined their dilemma.
“I donâ€™t think they are serious about not participating (in a run-off) because they have been saying different things since the election day,” Mutasa said.
“But if they are serious this time, they will be shocked, because we will proceed without them. The message is very simple: if they donâ€™t participate, they lose the run-off.”
It may never be known whether Tsvangirai really scraped a victory in the first round.
Independent observers working from the results that were posted outside each polling station estimated that he got 49,4% of the votes, but gave a margin of error of 2,4%.
Both Tsvangiraiâ€™s victory claim and the regimeâ€™s figure of 47,4% are within that margin of error.
The fact that the regimeâ€™s soldiers removed the ballot boxes from the electoral commissionâ€™s headquarters three weeks ago, and that it delayed so long before releasing the final figures, suggests that it needed the time to change the numbers and cancel a Tsvangirai victory.
But it may just have been using the extra time to terrorise villages that voted heavily for the MDC, before embarking on a second round of voting.
The regimeâ€™s strategy for the run-off is already clear.
Recent changes to the electoral law included a great multiplication in the number of rural polling stations, which makes it easy to identify which villages backed the opposition.
Many of these villages have already had a visit from Zanu PF enforcers who beat suspected opposition supporters while local police and army units look on.
The MDC claims that 20 of its supporters have already been killed, and many hundreds beaten so severely that they had to be hospitalised.
It could be three weeks or even more until the second round of the election, which allows time for every pro-MDC village to get the treatment at least once, and in some cases repeatedly.
The MDC will almost certainly agree to take part in the run-off in the end.
Its supporters will face violence that may deter many from voting, and the regime will not permit adequate scrutiny of the voting by outside observers.
This time, people trying to photograph the results that must be posted up outside each polling station are likely to be chased away or killed.
Yet it is still possible that Mugabe will lose by such a big and undeniable margin that he will have to acknowledge defeat.
When you take account of the legions of “ghost voters,” all strangely sharing the same few addresses, who loyally cast their votes for Mugabe in every election, and the large number of known MDC supporters whose names were removed from the electoral rolls, the real proportion of eligible voters who would now vote against Mugabe in a free election probably amounts to two-thirds or more.
Thanks to the results of the first round, they now know that they are in the majority. It is imaginable that this will give them the courage to use their votes despite the intimidation they face, and to turf Mugabe out.
By Gwynne Dyer: a London-based independent journalist.