Voters look at results posted outside a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Associated Press )
JOHANNESBURG -- The first official results from Zimbabwe's election and unofficial tallies indicated Thursday that President Robert Mugabe's party was headed for a landslide win. But Mugabe's main rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, rejected Wednesday's poll as a sham and warned that the country was headed for a crisis.
A number of observers and civil society groups said Mugabe's ZANU-PF party made huge gains in areas that were strongholds for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, including Matebeleland South, Manicaland and Masvingo. The party had an overwhelming lead in early parliamentary results announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
ZANU-PF made no official victory claim over Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change, withdrawing what it described as an unauthorized tweet from the party account that had claimed a resounding win. But a senior ZANU-PF figure told Reuters news agency that his party had crushed the opposition.
"We've taken this election. We've buried the MDC. We never had any doubt that we were going to win," the anonymous official was quoted as saying.
(In Zimbabwe it is illegal to announce unofficial results or claim victory before the official announcement by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.)
Tsvangirai, who has served as prime minister since the formation of an uneasy government of national unity after a disputed 2008 election, declared Wednesday's vote "null and void" and "a huge farce."
"The shoddy manner in which it has been conducted and the consequent illegitimacy of the result will plunge this country into a serious crisis," Tsvangirai said at a news conference in Harare.
The independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, which deployed 7,000 observers around the country, more than any other observer group, said in a statement that the election was "seriously compromised by a systematic effort to disenfranchise an estimated million voters."
The group said the names of more than 750,000 voters in Tsvangirai's urban strongholds were missing from the voters roll.
"When compounded by the massive bias in the state media, the campaign of intimidation in rural areas, the lack of meaningful voter education, the rushed electoral process and the harassment of civil society, [this leaves] the credibility of these elections severely compromised," the group said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch also said the flaws in the election called its credibility into question, adding in a statement that problems reported by local observers needed investigation.
"They report that a high number of 'ghost' or duplicate voters were present on the voters’ roll and that large numbers of people were unfairly turned away from polling stations," the statement said.
However, the major regional power broker, South African President Jacob Zuma, appeared to offer little comfort to Tsvangirai or his party, calling on him in televised comments to produce evidence for his claims of massive election manipulation.
If African observers back the result as credible, Zuma is unlikely to reject it or support Tsvangirai's contention of fraud. That would leave the opposition with few options other than trying to mobilize street protests, which have not materialized on a large scale in past flawed elections.
The first group of outside African observers to report on the poll, the South African Development Community Electoral Commission Forum, said the election was free and fair, the process was credible and the result should be accepted.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who headed an African Union observer team, agreed.
"I have been able to witness an election that is free and fair as we could see it," he said on Zimbabwean state television.
Zimbabwe's electoral commission said voter turnout was large, but released no figure.
Regional leaders pulled together the unity government after the disputed 2008 poll, but failed to ensure that the accompanying road map for political and institutional reform was followed, according to critics.
As president, Mugabe retained control over the powerful military and security sector.
In an ominous development, several dozen riot police were deployed near the Movement for Democratic Change party headquarters in Harare on Thursday.
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