HARARE - President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party claimed a landslide victory on Thursday in Zimbabwe's elections, but its rival, Prime Minster Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said there had been "monumental fraud".
Wednesday's voting was peaceful across the southern African nation, but the early conflicting claims from the two sides heralded an acrimonious dispute over the outcome and raised fears of a repeat of violence that marred a 2008 election.
Releasing unofficial results early in Zimbabwe is illegal, and police have said they will arrest anybody who makes premature claims about the result. Election authorities were due to announce results within five days from Wednesday.
But a senior source in Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, who asked not to be named, said the outcome 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 told Reuters by phone on Thursday.
Riot police took up positions outside the party's headquarters in central Harare and other key locations in the capital. MDC offices appeared to be almost deserted.
An independent election monitor in Zimbabwe, who also could not be named for fear of arrest, said early results were looking like a "disaster" for Tsvangirai, who was making his third bid to unseat the 89-year-old Mugabe.
Responding to the ZANU-PF claim, a high-ranking source in Tsvangirai's MDC party described the election as "a monumental fraud".
"Zimbabweans have been taken for a ride by ZANU-PF and Mugabe. We do not accept it," the source, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
The MDC was to hold an emergency meeting later on Thursday.
PEACEFUL, BUT FREE AND FAIR?
Several political sources told Reuters key MDC members had lost their seats, even in the capital, Tsvangirai's main support base since he burst onto the political scene 15 years ago.
The head of an African Union observer mission said late on Wednesday the polls appeared at first glance to be "peaceful, orderly and free and fair" - an assessment at odds with the view of the MDC and of independent entities monitoring the poll.
In Thursday, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the leading domestic monitoring agency, said the credibility of the poll was seriously compromised by large numbers of voters being turned away from polling stations in MDC strongholds.
"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."
The United States, which has sanctions in place against Mugabe, had also expressed concern before Wednesday about the credibility of the vote, citing persistent pro-ZANU-PF bias in the state media and partisan security forces.
Other worries centred on the voters' roll, which was meant by law to be released in electronic form to all parties before the poll, but which has still not been made available.