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Zimbabweans await election results as observer missions note voter intimidation

Hordes of police officers armed with batons, teargas canisters and some with guns were seen next to the result centre (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Hordes of police officers armed with batons, teargas canisters and some with guns were seen next to the result centre (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi) Hordes of police officers armed with batons, teargas canisters and some with guns were seen next to the result centre (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zimbabweans are awaiting the outcome of the coutnry’s general election.

Dozens of armed police with water cannons are guarding the national results centre, the scene of deadly violence after the previous vote five years ago.

African election observer missions criticised this week’s balloting, alleging that a group linked to the ruling Zanu-PF party had engaged in voter intimidation, while Zimbabwe authorities took dozens of local election monitors to court on allegations of subversion that government critics said were trumped-up charges.

Armed riot police prepare to be deployed on the streets of Harare
Armed riot police prepare to be deployed on the streets of Harare Armed riot police prepare to be deployed on the streets of Harare (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Early results from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission indicated that Zanu-PF was winning in its traditional rural strongholds, while the Citizens Coalition for Change was taking major urban areas that have traditionally voted for the opposition. Results in the presidential balloting are not expected for several days.

Zimbabwe’s long history of disputed elections has left many wary of official results.

Voting closed on Thursday after delays in distributing ballot papers in the capital, Harare, and other urban areas prompted President Emmerson Mnangagwa to extend voting by a day. Many voters slept outside polling stations in urban areas that are opposition strongholds to cast their ballots.

Mr Mnangagwa, 80, seeks a second and final five-year term but faces a major challenge from Nelson Chamisa, a 45-year-old lawyer and pastor whom Mr Mnangagwa narrowly defeated in the disputed 2018 election.

This is the second general election since long-time repressive ruler Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup in 2017. It is selecting the president, 350-member parliament and close to 2,000 council seats nationwide. More than six million people were registered to vote, though turnout has not been announced.

People read newspaper headlines on the streets of Harare
People read newspaper headlines on the streets of Harare People in Zimbabwe are anxiously awaiting the results of the election (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Election observer missions from the African Union and Southern African Development Community SADC and African Union Observer Missions openly alleged voter intimidation.

They raised concern over a ruling party affiliate organisation called Forever Associates of Zimbabwe (FAZ) that they said set up tables at polling stations and took details of people walking into voting booths. The head of the AU mission, former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, said the FAZ activities should be declared “criminal offences”.

The SADC mission said the electoral body ahead of the vote had assured it that all voting materials, including ballot boxes, were “available and ready for use”. The shortage on voting day “has the unfortunate effect of creating doubts about the credibility of this electoral process,” the mission said.

The European Union observer mission and the Carter Centre questioned the credibility of the vote, with the Carter Centre saying it took place under a “restricted political environment”.

Police on Thursday said they arrested 41 workers with two accredited poll monitoring groups, the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network and the Election Resource Centre, and seized their computers. Police accused them of “subversive and criminal activities” as part of an opposition plan to fabricate the results.

Zimbabwe police officers
Zimbabwe police officers Hordes of police officers armed with batons, teargas canisters and some with guns were seen next to the result centre (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

But the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the workers were carrying out their mandate as election observers. The group said police took 35 of those to court, charged under a provision of electoral law that punishes “unofficial or false declaration of results” with up to six months’ imprisonment or a fine. It was not clear why the rest were not charged.

The elections have been tainted by allegations of violence, intimidation and accusations by the opposition and human rights groups that Mr Mnangagwa used the police and the courts to silence dissent, amid rising tensions due to a currency crisis, a sharp hike in food prices, a weakening public health system and inadequate numbers of formal jobs.

Both Mr Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF party, which has ruled for decades, and Mr Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change said they were heading for victory.

“It’s a decisive win!” Mr Chamisa said on social media.

“Zanu-PF takes early poll lead,” the state-run Herald newspaper said, basing its report on a few parliamentary results announced on Thursday.

The elections body has asked people to be patient and wait for official results.

The situation remained calm in the capital and no major unrest was reported in other parts of the country.

But dozens of police with batons, tear gas canisters and guns stood guard along with water cannons next to the results centre. Others were stationed at steel barricades on major roads leading to the centre.

After the last elections, the government deployed soldiers to quell protests at the results centre and elsewhere in the city. Soldiers fired live rounds, killing six people. The protests were over delays in the announcement of presidential results and fears of election rigging.