The very early returns from Mozambique's general election put ruling party candidate Armando Guebuza in the lead, although the opposition warns that votes have not yet been counted in its strongholds. Most international election observer groups have given their preliminary approval to the way the poll was conducted, even though the final result may not be known for quite some time.

All of the major observer groups have praised Mozambican poll workers for doing their jobs well. They also congratulated the Mozambican people for voting in a peaceful and orderly fashion, although there were a few concerns over the apparently very low turnout.

The European Union has the largest observer mission, with 130 poll monitors who visited nearly 1,400 polling stations. The EU observers said voting and counting were well-organized, and the polling staff were committed and well-trained.

But EU chief observer Javier Pomes of Spain said the group is still concerned that election officials may not give them full access to the final results tally sheets.

He says, "Right now, we hope that we will be able to be present at the results center, and that we will have access to the results sheets, because this is very important in being able to fully evaluate the electoral process."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter led a team of observers from his organization, the Carter Center. He elaborated on the need for access to the results sheets.

"If there are large numbers, or substantial numbers of ballots or final tally sheets thrown out, we believe that the observers, domestic and international, should have complete confirmation of the reasons for those invalidations," said Jimmy Carter.

That was a problem in the last general election in 1999, when hundreds of thousands of votes were discarded, but observers were not able to confirm why. Most of them came from northern and central districts where the opposition RENAMO party is strongest. RENAMO has complained that its voters were kept away from the polls in some areas this time around.

The observer groups also generally agree on a number of shortcomings in this year's poll, including the difficulty that people in some rural areas had in getting to polling stations.

The chairman of the Commonwealth observer mission is Vaughan Lewis, the former prime minister of the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia.

"Unfortunately some polling stations did not open at all, and some opened a day late," said Vaughan Lewis. "And in places, there was confusion about the location of the polling stations. As a result, some people were unable to vote. In rural areas, distances to polling stations were sometimes excessive. These are unwelcome shortcomings."

The Carter Center offered a few more details about irregularities in RENAMO areas, including the arrest of several local RENAMO officials before the poll. The center also confirmed the party's allegation that police refused to allow RENAMO party agents to spend the night with the ballot boxes in a few places. The European Union mission said that happened at about five percent of polling stations.

President Carter said only two incidents appeared serious enough to possibly invalidate the results from those areas, including one polling station at which only four people were able to vote out of a possible 1,000.

Overall, most of the international observers so far agree with Vaughan Lewis of the Commonwealth observer mission.

"We have concluded that, overall, the voting phase of the elections went well," he said. "We came across few serious irregularities. Everywhere, the secrecy of the ballot was assured. Polling station staff adhered to the prescribed procedures, were efficient and helpful to voters."

The counting of ballots is proceeding slowly. The electoral commission is required by law to release the results no later than December 17. If no presidential candidate gets more than half of the votes, the election could go to a second round, although neither of the major parties believes that will happen.

Most of the observer missions will scale back their presence in Mozambique fairly soon, but will keep some observers in the country until the entire process is done.