Harare, Zimbabwe On the surface, the process looked fair: Zimbabweans lined up peacefully and cast ballots Thursday in a parliamentary election President Robert Mugabe wants to vindicate his nearly 25-year rule.
But opposition leaders and independent groups said the poll was stacked in Mugabe's favor. Intimidation was rife, the electoral roll was in shambles and large numbers were unable to cast ballots, they said.
"We are not happy with the way the electoral playing field has been organized, and I think we all agree, on all benchmarks, this is not going to be a free and fair election," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said as he cast his ballot.
Under international pressure to produce a credible result, Mugabe's government and party stanched the bloodletting that has plagued previous elections in this southern African country. For the first time in years, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party was able to campaign openly.
Mugabe was confident the gamble would pay off, saying he was "entirely, completely, totally optimistic" of victory for his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. He said he voted only to increase the margin of victory.
However, encouraged by the drop in violence, Tsvangirai held out hope his party could muster enough support to claim Parliament.
The Movement for Democratic Change won 57 of Parliament's 120 elected seats in the last parliamentary election in 2000, despite what Western observers called widespread violence, intimidation and vote rigging. But it lost six seats in subsequent by-elections. Mugabe appoints an additional 30 seats, virtually guaranteeing his party a majority.
Mugabe accuses British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Western leaders of backing the 6-year-old Movement for Democratic Change, the first party to seriously challenge his rule since he led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980. He dubbed Thursday's vote the "anti-Blair election."