While he condemned the process, officials with Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said there were early indications that their octogenarian leader was heading for a strong victory.
The government-owned Herald newspaper on Friday reported that Zanu-PF and Mr Mugabe were heading for a landslide victory comparable to 1980. Reports suggest the party has made clean sweeps in six out of the country’s 10 provinces, the newspaper said.
Wednesday’s presidential and parliamentary elections have been seen as critical for a nation dogged by years of political uncertainty and a fragile economy.
The electoral commission announced results for 28 constituencies late on Thursday, saying Zanu-PF had won 25 to the three won by the Movement for Democratic Change, with indications that Mr Mugabe’s party had made surprising inroads into MDC strongholds. The are 210 constituencies in the country.
After counting was completed at polling stations, Mr Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, said it was “a sham election that does not reflect the will of the people”.
“In our view, that election is null and void,” he said.
A senior Zanu-PF official rebuffed the MDC’s allegations of voter manipulation, saying the poll was “generally very transparent and credible”.
He added: “I’m told there are indications of a landslide” for Zanu-PF and Mr Mugabe. The 89-year-old has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip since independence from Britain in 1980.
Mr Tsvangirai, a former unionist, had previously challenged Mr Mugabe at elections in 2002 and 2008, both of which were marred by violence and allegations of vote rigging. After the disputed 2008 vote, the MDC joined Zanu-PF in a unity government, with Mr Tsvangirai taking the post of prime minister.
The MDC entered this election – which was rushed through after the date was set for July 31 in spite of an outcry by opposition parties and other observers – complaining of serious irregularities with the voter registration roll, as well as the absence of media and security sector reform.
Yet it had confidently predicted it would win, insisting that Zimbabweans were desperate for change after 33 years of Mr Mugabe’s rule and years of economic chaos, including a period of record hyperinflation and empty shops, fresh in voters’ minds.
Campaigning and voting passed peacefully. But the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a grouping of non-governmental agencies that deployed more than 7,000 observers around the country, said the election was “seriously compromised by a systematic effort to disenfranchise an estimated 1m voters”.
It said that voters in urban areas – where the MDC has traditionally been strong – had “systematically been denied the opportunity to register to vote”, saying that while nearly all rural voters were registered, only 68 per cent of urban voters had registered. It added that on polling day, many potential voters in urban areas were turned away and not permitted to vote because they did not appear on the electoral roll or were told they had turned up at the wrong polling station.
It said those factors “fundamentally undermine the degree to which the results” of the election “can be considered to reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people”.
Analysts said that Zanu-PF’s support may also have been underestimated as it benefited from a stronger election machinery with its control of state institutions and a media bias. The state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation transmits the only Zimbabwe-based television station and dominates local language radio stations.
Tens of thousands of families have also benefited from Mr Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme, under which white-owned farms were seized and transferred to black Zimbabweans.
Mr Tsvangirai and the MDC may also have suffered from their record in the unity government, amid criticisms that they failed to use their position in the administration to push for greater change.
Trevor Maisiri, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said there was a combination of factors behind Zanu-PF’s apparent strong performance, including the alleged irregularities.
“I think people did underestimate Zanu-PF’s support, they underestimated the capacity the economic empowerment programme brought to Zanu-PF. Also, they really underestimated Zanu-PF’s inroads in the urban areas,” he said. “The MDC really underestimated the impact of the issues around their loss of support since they joined the government of national unity … which could have led to levels of voter apathy.”
There have also been allegations that Zanu-PF used revenues from the country’s opaque diamond mining sector to fund its campaign and re-establish patronage networks.
Critics of the regime said a Zanu-PF victory would be a serious setback for the country, where poverty and unemployment are widespread.
Nixon Nyikadzino, programme director at the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, a coalition of civil society groups, said it spelt disaster for the country, saying the squandering of its natural resources would continue with impunity.
“We have taken one step forward and two steps backward,” he said. “Even the future of the young, who thought by voting they could protect their future, has been doomed.”