Results are trickling in for Zimbabwe's presidential election. With fewer than half the votes counted, incumbent President Robert Mugabe has taken an early lead over his main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, according to government officials.
It is the first time in Zimbabwe's 21 years of independence that Mr. Mugabe has faced a real threat to his hold on the presidency.
According to state television, the registrar-general says turnout in the landmark election was relatively low, with about 55 percent of registered voters going to the polls nationwide. But turnout was noticeably lower in Mr. Tsvangirai's strongholds of Harare and Bulawayo.
Only 41 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in Harare, despite an extra day being added to the voting period. Tens of thousands of people were turned away when polling stations closed at the end of the third day.
The ballot-counting had barely begun when independent civic groups began blasting the Zimbabwean presidential election as unfair.
Two local groups who have been observing the poll say tens of thousands of people were unable to vote. They say that is especially true in Harare and the nearby city of Chitungwiza, where voting was extended by one day to allow more people to cast their ballots. People waited in slow-moving lines for as long as three days but were still turned away when the polls were finally closed at 7 PM sharp on Monday.
Reginald Matchaba-Hove of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network says this was by far the most flawed election in Zimbabwe's 21 years of independence.
"There is no way that these elections can be described as substantially free and fair.... Whereas before we have complained about the conduct of elections, in real terms they were relatively well run on the days of polling," he said. "But on this occasion, for the first time, the Friday and the polling days, Saturday and Sunday, and the additional polling day in Harare and Chitungwiza, was chaotic, filled with lots of confusion. We have never seen such a poorly organized election."
The chairman of another civic organization, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Group, said "the election well has been poisoned to such an extent that there is unlikely to be any other result" than a victory for incumbent President Robert Mugabe.
The Norwegian observer mission has also say the poll is deeply flawed. The Norwegians say the election failed to meet what they called key broadly accepted criteria. And, they say, it was conducted in an atmosphere of political violence.
The Norwegian group acknowledges that both sides were responsible for some of the violence. But Norway's chief observer says the evidence shows clearly that in the vast majority of cases, the ruling party was to blame.