Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai dismissed Zimbabwe’s election as a farce on Thursday after his rival President Robert Mugabe’s party claimed a landslide victory that would secure another five years in power for Africa’s oldest head of state.
Speaking at the headquarters of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a downbeat Tsvangirai said Wednesday’s vote should be rejected as invalid because of polling day irregularities and vote-rigging by 89-year-old Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
“This has been a huge farce,” he told reporters. “In our view, that election is null and void.” He did not take questions, leaving it unclear whether he or his party will mount any kind of legal challenge.
The conflicting claims from the two main competing camps came before Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission had issued any official results, and raise the prospect of an acrimonious post-election dispute.
There are fears that this could spill over into violence, as happened after the last election in 2008 when 200 MDC supporters were killed in the wake of a first-round defeat for Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
Wednesday’s poll was peaceful but the largest independent observer group said it was seriously compromised because of voter registration problems that may have disenfranchised up to a million people - a fifth of all Zimbabweans of voting age.
Releasing unofficial results early is illegal, and police had said they would arrest anybody who did this.
However, a senior source in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, who asked not to be named, told reporters less than 15 hours after the polls closed that the result was already clear.
“We’ve taken this election. We’ve buried the MDC. We never had any doubt that we were going to win,” the source said, but gave no vote numbers.
If confirmed, Mugabe’s victory is likely to mean five more years of troubled relations with the West, where the former liberation fighter is regarded as a ruthless despot responsible for serious human rights abuses and wrecking the economy.
Asked on the eve of the polls if he was fit enough to last in office until the age of 94, Mugabe joked about the reports of his imminent death that occasionally surface in the media.
“According to Europe and perhaps America, I died. I don’t know how many times I died,” he said. “But never would they say I have resurrected. I’m not dead yet.”
Western election observers were barred from entering the southern African country, which has rich reserves of minerals such as diamonds, chrome, coal and platinum.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, head of an African Union (AU) monitoring team, said on Wednesday the polls appeared to be “peaceful, orderly and free and fair” - a stance he reiterated on state television after saying goodbye to Mugabe late on Thursday.
“I have been able to witness an election that is free and fair as we could see it,” he said.
His assessment was sharply at odds with that of non-government organisations closely following the elections.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the leading domestic monitoring body, said large numbers of people had been turned away from polling stations in MDC strongholds.
It also cast doubt on the authenticity of the voters’ roll, noting that 99.97 per cent of voters in the countryside - Mugabe’s main source of support - were registered, against just 67.94 per cent in the mostly pro-Tsvangirai urban areas.
In all, 6.4 million people, nearly half the population, had been registered to vote.
“It is not sufficient for elections to be peaceful for elections to be credible,” ZESN chairman Solomon Zwana told a news conference. “They must offer all citizens... an equal opportunity to vote.”
In a statement issued after his brief public appearance, Tsvangirai said the “shoddy manner” in which the election had been conducted would plunge the country into a serious crisis.
Several political sources told Reuters that many of the MDC’s top leadership had lost their parliamentary seats, leaving in disarray a 14-year-old political grouping backed by financial and logistical support from Western governments.
Whatever the verdict from the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zimbabwe is a member, the outcome is likely to face intense scrutiny outside Africa, where dislike of Mugabe runs deep.
The United States, which has sanctions in place against Mugabe and his inner circle, expressed concerns in advance about the election’s credibility, citing persistent pro-ZANU-PF bias in the state media and partisan security forces.
The view from Brussels, London and Washington is key to the future of Zimbabwe’s economy, which is still struggling with the aftermath of a decade-long slump and hyperinflation that ended in 2009 when the worthless Zimbabwe dollar was scrapped.
However, if the vote meets with the broad approval of regional observers, it will be hard for the West to ignore it without creating a diplomatic ruckus.
“If they step up sanctions, they will have to go on record as rejecting the AU’s and SADC’s election evaluation and that will put them in a tight spot politically,” said Mark Rosenburg, an analyst at the Eurasia Group political consultancy .
In March, the European Union suspended most sanctions after Zimbabwean voters approved a new constitution limiting presidential powers, opening the way for the July 31 election.
The International Monetary Fund agreed in June to monitor Zimbabwe’s programmes until the end of the year, moving Harare a step closer to clear its billions of dollars of debt arrears.