The Commonwealth observer team has condemned the Zimbabwean presidential elections as deeply flawed. The move could trigger sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Election observers from the Commonwealth group of nations say the Zimbabwean presidential poll was conducted in a climate of fear and suspicion.
The leader of the observer mission, former Nigerian head of state Abdusalami Abubakar, issued a harshly worded interim statement on the electoral process. "The conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors," he said.
The interim statement covers only the pre-election period and the actual days of voting. It does not cover the counting of ballots, and it makes no judgment on the legitimacy of the outcome.
Election officials say incumbent President Robert Mugabe won re-election by a wide margin over opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. But Mr. Tsvangirai has alleged massive rigging of the poll, and he says his party will not recognize the results.
The Commonwealth observers say they believe "the ruling party used its incumbency to exploit state resources for the benefit of its electoral campaign." They also have said thousands of Zimbabweans were denied their right to vote either by problems with the voter-registration process or because of what they call "an inexplicable reduction in the number of polling stations in urban areas."
General Abubakar said the elections were marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and intimidation - mainly carried out by supporters of Mr. Mugabe's ruling party, ZANU PF.
"While violent acts were carried out by supporters of both main political parties, it is our view that most of these were perpetrated by members and supporters of the ruling party, against members and supporters of the opposition," he said.
The Commonwealth statement also said their observers often found that police did not investigate reported cases of violence and intimidation targeting the opposition. And it said the police were lenient in dealing with members of ZANU PF.
"This failure to impartially enforce the law seriously calls into question the application of the rule of law in Zimbabwe," General Abubakar said.
The observer team's critical report is significant because Commonwealth nations discussed imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe at a heads-of-government meeting in Australia earlier this month. After a contentious round of talks, the heavily divided group decided to delay taking any action until they had heard from their observer team after the poll.
The Commonwealth observers hope to finish their final report on the poll during the next few days, and then submit it to the Commonwealth secretary-general. Three nations - Nigeria, South Africa and Australia - will form a committee to decide what to do based on that report.
Members of the Commonwealth observer team privately told VOA there was very little disagreement among their members over whether their report should condemn the elections. They say essentially the only argument came from some members who felt the statement should be even more strongly worded than it is.