HARARE, Zimbabwe – African election observers on Friday generally approved Zimbabwe's voting process, giving the main opposition party that has alleged massive fraud few apparent options for dislodging Robert Mugabe from power after 33 years. His party has already declared victory, even before results from the election have been announced.
Leaders of the continentwide African Union and the regional Southern African Development Community, or SADC, both urged the losing opposition candidates to exercise restraint over early results indicating a Mugabe lead and, however aggrieved they felt, to turn to legal channels to resolve disputes.
By late Friday, official results announced by the election commission showed Mugabe's ZANU-PF party capturing 129 of the 210 parliament seats and Tsvangirai's party winning 42 seats so far. Those results put Mugabe close to a two-thirds majority that would allow him to alter a constitution that was approved in a referendum earlier this year.
Full results on the presidential and parliament votes have been promised by Monday.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's main opponent in the presidential vote, has declared the election "null and void." His party said it has had calls from supporters to take to the streets in protest and it was assessing reports that Mugabe's loyalist military and police were planning a clampdown and arrests of its party leaders.
The Movement for Democratic Change said Friday it rejected the observations of African monitors that glossed over "monumental fraud" by state security agents and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. The mood in some urban strongholds of the MDC was muted.
"I cried and cried," said Rose Marume, 33, a Harare accountant. "We had so much optimism Morgan Tsvangirai would win this time, but now we are back to square one. We won't be able to count on our African neighbors any longer. We are on our own now, and I am afraid."
Earlier Friday, Mugabe's Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa described his party as headed for a landslide.
"If anyone is dissatisfied, the courts are there. I invite Tsvangirai to go to court if he has any grounds to justify what he has been saying," Chinamasa said.
The elections received qualified approval from the African Union, though it said it had some "grave" and "serious" concerns over polling on Wednesday. Regional monitors from southern Africa said while the vote was peaceful, it was too early to pronounce it fair.
Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the African Union mission, said his monitors noted some apparent irregularities but that they did not constitute evidence of systematic tampering. Mugabe's supporters have rejected allegations of rigging and claimed victory, raising fears of a fresh uncertainty in a country long afflicted by division and economic turmoil.
The head of the observer mission for the Southern African Development Community described the election Wednesday as "very free" and "very peaceful," but noted that there were some violations and a full analysis was still under way.
"The question of fairness is broad and you cannot answer it within one day," said Bernard Membe, who is also Tanzania's foreign minister. "And so be sure that within 30 days, through our main report, the question of fairness may come."
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party said poll returns showed that 3.9 million voters cast their ballots, a turnout of 61 percent, far higher than in an uncontested referendum on a new constitution in March where no disputed voters' lists were used and only national citizens' identity documents were needed.
Independent election monitors have alleged many people were unable to vote because of disorganized voters' lists and a chaotic program to register electors on those lists in the run-up to polling day.
Aisha Abdullahi, the African Union's commissioner for political affairs, said observers reported that Zimbabwe had made improvements in the conduct of elections since the last violent and disputed elections in 2008 that led regional leaders to forge a shaky coalition between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader.
But she said they expressed "grave concerns" over voters' lists this time that were not made available in time for inspection and verification by voters, contesting parties and candidates. Public scrutiny of the voters' roll was of vital "strategic importance" to verify the accuracy of the contents and establish correct numbers of eligible electors, she said.
She said the electoral commission printed 8.7 million ballot papers for 6.4 million voters, or 35 percent above the number of registered voters against the international standard of 5 to 10 percent.
Observers said a significant number of ballot booklets had missing ballot papers and papers without serial numbers.
They also expressed "great concern" over the high numbers of voters turned away. The late publicity on the location of voting stations just 48 hours before stations opened contributed also to voters failing to cast ballots because they were not at correct polling sites.
President Jacob Zuma, the chief regional mediator on Zimbabwe has challenged Tsvangirai to produce evidence of rigging.
"For us, the worry was violence and the election was not violent. Once you make a case, you have got to produce evidence," Zuma said, according to the South African Broadcasting Corp.
David Coltart, the outgoing education minister in the now defunct coalition, said he witnessed "hordes of young men with shaven heads" voting in his district in western Zimbabwe. He said they appeared to be police recruits or youth militia with no connection to the district or right to vote there, yet had no difficulty in doing so.
Tendai Biti, the third-ranking official in Tsvangirai's party, said he witnessed similar scenes in northern Harare. Video footage of those scenes has been distributed online. Youths appeared to have been bused in from rural districts far from the city.
Independent private local monitors said they believe the passengers of trucks and buses they saw were given copies of identity papers and voting slips belonging to Zimbabweans living outside the country.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans have fled economic hardships and political intimidation in the past decade to live in South Africa and further afield.