Zimbabweans anxiously wait for election results as African observer missions note voter intimidation

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabweans waited anxiously Friday for the outcome of general elections as dozens of armed police with water cannons guarded the national results center, the scene of deadly violence after the previous vote five years ago.

African election observer missions criticized 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.

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 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.

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 Mnangagwa narrowly defeated in the disputed 2018 election.

This is the second general election since the ouster of longtime repressive ruler Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017. It is selecting the president, 350-member parliament and close to 2,000 council seats countrywide. More than 6 million people were registered to vote, though turnout hasn’t been announced.

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 organization called Forever Associates of Zimbabwe 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 offenses.”

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 Center questioned the credibility of the vote, with the Carter Center 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 Center, and seized their computers. Police accused them of “subversive and criminal activities” as part of an opposition plan to fabricate the results.

But the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the workers were carrying out their mandate as election observers. The group on Friday 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 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 Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party, which has ruled for decades, and Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change parties said they were headed for victory.

“It’s a decisive win!” 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 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 center. Others were stationed at steel barricades on major roads leading to the center.

After the last elections, the government deployed soldiers to put down protests at the results center 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.