JOHANNESBURG— The party of Zimbabwe’s longtime President Robert Mugabe took an early and decisive lead in national elections, according to partial official results.
Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission announced Friday that the ZANU-PF party has won 137 seats, while the MDC party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has won 48. One seat was won by an independent.
The figures left Mugabe's party just a few seats short of a two-thirds majority in the 210-seat House of Assembly. Full official results have not yet been released. The commission has until to Monday to complete the vote counting.
But for many, the large margin and numerous reports of irregularities, intimidation and ballot-tampering cast heavy doubt over this vote. Tsvangirai has called the election illegitimate, warning it could plunge the nation into a serious crisis.
Zimbabwe’s opposition has repeatedly asserted that Wednesday’s elections were all but ruined by irregularities that included intimidation of opposition supporters, the busing in of pro-Mugabe voters to opposition districts and government manipulation of the voter roll.
They also accuse the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) of colluding with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party to rig the vote.
On Thursday, Tsvangirai, who is challenging Mugabe for the third time, claimed the poll was “null and void.” A statement from his Movement for Democratic Change party said they will seek an audit.
The opposition’s claims were echoed by the nation’s largest domestic observer mission, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which cited a litany of problems seen by its 7,000 observers.
The head of the African Union observer mission said Friday that the vote was "free, honest and credible."
The head of the Electoral Commissions Forum of the Southern African Development Community, however, noted some issues. In recommendations to ZEC, mission leader Notemba Tjipueja indicated the vote was far from perfect.
“There is a need to clean up the voters’ roll so as to ensure accuracy and adherence to legal provisions governing elections, i.e. voters’ roll and inspection. Secondly, ZEC should enhance its poll readiness to ensure timely dispatching of election material to polling stations. ZEC should intensify voter education on the legal changes introduced by the new constitution. The percentage of excess ballot papers printed should be reduced,” said Tjipueja.
One fact that has stirred extra suspicion is that ZANU-PF swept three areas that used to be opposition strongholds: Manicaland, Masvingo and Matabeleland South.
Opposition politicians were incredulous when ZANU-PF’s win in those areas was reported. Exiled MDC Treasurer Roy Bennett, speaking in Johannesburg, said he believes the vote was “stolen in broad daylight.”
“The numbers just don’t add up, it’s absolutely physically impossible to have a swing when the country of Zimbabwe is going through the hardship that it is," added Bennett. "When the people of Zimbabwe and the energy that they showed in going into these elections, showed that there was an energy from suffering and from suffering from the Mugabe regime, there is absolutely no way that there was a genuine swing by the people’s will.”
Mugabe’s government banned most Western observers, but U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is watching from afar.
"The people of Zimbabwe deserve the right to elect their leaders through peaceful, transparent, credible elections in an atmosphere that's free from violence, intimidation and fear of retribution," she said. "Now the critical test is whether voting tabulation is conducted in a credible manner and whether the outcome truly reflects the will of the people of Zimbabwe. I would say that we commend the people of Zimbabwe for voting peacefully yesterday. ... A peaceful and orderly election day does not by itself guarantee a free and fair outcome. ... We will be watching the situation closely."
Over the past decade, Mugabe and his close allies have been slapped with stiff sanctions by the U.S. and other Western nations over allegations they rigged elections and committed major human rights abuses.
But Mugabe has remained confident throughout of victory in his fifth run for the presidency. He has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980.
The 89-year-old president was pushed into a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai after the violent and disputed 2008 elections.