HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's party claimed Thursday that the veteran leader had won the hard-fought election over his long-time rival but local observers charged that the vote was seriously flawed.
"We have romped [to victory] in a very emphatic manner. We have defeated the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change]," a top member of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party told AFP.
He said Mugabe had trounced three-time challenger Morgan Tsvangirai in Wednesday's vote and that the ZANU-PF had retaken many parliamentary seats in urban areas, where support for the MDC was believed to be strong.
There was no immediate confirmation from election authorities about the claim, and no official results have yet been issued from the presidential and parliamentary vote.
And local observers cited a slew of flaws that called into question the victory claim, after the MDC charged that Mugabe's rivals had been engaged in vote-rigging.
"The election is seriously compromised," said Solomon Zwana, the chairman of Zimbabwe Election Support Network. "Up to a million voters were disenfranchised."
Regional observers from the African Union had said the process had been "orderly and fair" while the United States said it was too early to make a full judgment.
Turnout was reported to be high nationwide after queues of Zimbabweans lined up for hours to vote in the first election since bloody polls in 2008 that led to the creation of an uneasy government alliance between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
The 89-year-old Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, is seeking a seventh term but Tsvangirai has voiced hope the election will usher in a new era for the troubled southern African nation.
Final results had been expected within five days of the election and police warned Wednesday that anyone trying to release unofficial figures ahead of time risked being arrested.
Mugabe himself had even threatened to arrest Tsvangirai if he tried to declare an early victory.
The African Union, which has been accused of whitewashing problems in the run-up to the vote, said initial reports indicated it was "peaceful, orderly, free, and fair."
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also said early signs indicated a "peaceful environment" — but that it was too soon to say if the election had been fair.
"We've made clear to the government of Zimbabwe and the region that further reductions in our sanctions will only occur if these next elections are credible, transparent and reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people," she said.
Despite the tensions over the rigging allegations and the fierce rhetoric of the campaign, there were no reports of widespread violence.
Many of the 6.4 million eligible voters started queuing before sunrise in the winter cold, hours before polls opened. The lines continued well into the evening, with many marking their ballots by candle light.
Mugabe said after he cast his ballot there was "no pressure" being exerted on voters.
On Tuesday the firebrand had vowed to step down if Tsvangirai was the victor, saying: "If you lose you must surrender."
Mugabe came to prominence as a hero of Africa's liberation movement, guiding Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 from Britain and white minority rule.
But his military-backed rule has been marked by a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises, and suspect elections that have brought international sanctions and made him a pariah in the West.
As the economy recovers from a crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested" and dismiss concerns about his age.
Mugabe had focused his campaign on attacking homosexuals and on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.
Tsvangirai himself predicted the MDC would win "quite resoundingly."
"This is a very historic moment for all of us," he said Wednesday. It is the time to "complete the change."
Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed attacks.
But the 61-year-old former union boss has repeatedly voiced concerns that the election was being rigged and the MDC on Wednesday listed a battery of alleged irregularities.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a senior MDC member, said the names of thousands of voters were missing from the electoral roll and that there were two million dead people on the lists.
The MDC handed its evidence to observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and since no Western groups were allowed to monitor the polls, its account will be closely watched.
Tsvangirai hopes his plans to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a long-awaited victory.
But some analysts had cautioned against interpreting high urban turnout as a sign Tsvangirai would sweep the election — in which the victor needs more than 50 percent to avoid a second round.
"This election is going to be decided in the rural areas," where two thirds of Zimbabweans live and where Mugabe enjoys strong support, said Michael Bratton, founder of pollsters Afrobarometer.
© AFP 2013