Zimbabwe’s election took an uneasy turn Tuesday when the opposition alleged results were not posted outside one-fifth of polling stations as required by law, and the electoral commission said the impatient nation would have to wait longer to learn who will be its next president.
The government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, meanwhile, suggested the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and his supporters were inciting “violence” by declaring he had won Monday’s election even though only parliamentary returns have been announced.
“Let me also warn such individuals and groups that no one is above the law,” Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu said. Security forces “will remain on high alert and continue to monitor the security situation in the country.”
Zimbabweans desperately hope Monday’s peaceful vote will lift them out of economic and political stagnation after decades of Robert Mugabe’s rule, but the country is haunted by a history of electoral violence and manipulation that means trust is scarce, despite today’s freer environment.
While the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has five days from the end of voting to release the final tally, the national mood is growing anxious partly because unofficial results are already swirling on social media.
Dozens of opposition supporters even gathered at their headquarters in the capital, Harare, celebrating in the belief that they had won the presidential election based on results they said they collected from agents in the field. As they danced to music blasting from speakers set up on a truck, police with water cannon circulated in the area.
There was no confrontation, but even the possibility of it was an unnerving reminder of the tensions that pervade the southern African nation, debilitated by Mugabe’s long rule. The 94-year-old former leader had been in power since independence from white minority rule in 1980 until he was forced to resign in November after the military and ruling ZANU-PF party turned on him.
Mnangagwa, a former deputy president who fell out with Mugabe and then took over from him, has said his showing in the presidential polls was “extremely positive” while urging people to wait for official results.
Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, has gone further, saying his own count shows that he won the election and that he’s ready to form the next government.
Chamisa’s party also said results have not been posted outside 21 percent of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations, raising concerns about possible vote-rigging. It suggested there was a deliberate effort to delay announcing the results, reflecting deep suspicion about the panel presiding over the election.
Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who heads the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, said she was confident there had been no “cheating” in the first election without Mugabe on the ballot. Each polling station must post its results outside after vote-counting, she said.
“We will not steal their choice of leaders, we will not subvert their will,” Chigumba said.
“The atmosphere has remained peaceful” and the commission has not received any major complaints about the election, she said.
The commission said it would delay releasing any results of the presidential race until all the votes are collated. If no presidential candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Sept. 8.
More than 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election featuring a record number of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties.
Western election observers were in Zimbabwe, a sign of a freer political environment since the resignation of Mugabe, who declared he would not vote for the ruling party he long controlled and called Chamisa the only viable candidate.
Meanwhile, a monitoring group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, issued preliminary findings on the vote, noting improvements such as a biometric registration system that reduced the chances of fraud.
However, it noted problems with implementation, saying the election commission at one point allotted more registration kits to rural areas and fewer to urban areas. The ruling party has strong rural support, while the opposition is popular in the cities.
Elmar Brok, head of the European Union monitoring mission, said Tuesday that his team noted some “inconsistencies” but that overall there was “progress” compared to past elections.
“In African elections, often stakes are very high and nobody has a backup plan for losing,” said John Dramani Mahama, former president of Ghana and head of the observer mission from the Commonwealth nations, mostly former British colonies.
The contenders in Zimbabwe’s vote must accept the results and “should look at the larger picture of success, a successful election for Zimbabwe,” he said.
A voter in Harare said Zimbabwe is eager to hear the election results as soon as possible.
“Because people are not yet settled, they’re thinking of too many things,” said 65-year-old Chaka Nyuka. “They need a good change. People are looking for that.”