The sudden outbreak of violence risked derailing an election that was seen by many as a chance for Zimbabwe to emerge from decades of isolation after 37 years of increasingly authoritarian rule by Mugabe.
The conflict began with protests by backers of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) over the delayed release of results from Monday’s election that they believed signaled an attempt by the ruling party to steal victory from their candidate, Nelson Chamisa.
Amid a heavy police presence, the tense atmosphere slipped into violence. Armed with metal rods and rocks, small groups roved downtown Harare, the capital, destroying everything from stoplights to storefronts. Police fired warning shots, water cannons and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowds.
About an hour later, the army arrived and turned the city into a war zone, firing live rounds indiscriminately into a crowd gathered outside the MDC’s headquarters on Nelson Mandela Avenue in the center of Harare.
In the crowd, a man in a red Chamisa sweatshirt was shot in the arm. A man nearby fell to the ground, gasping and pointing to his abdomen; others removed his pants, revealing that his genitals had been mangled by a bullet.
A woman in a smart green suit looked out upon the smoldering fires lit by the rioters and the blood and glass strewn on a street corner and said, “This is heartbreak.”
While the presidential contest involved 23 candidates, the main race was between Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor, and 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who helped engineer Mugabe’s downfall in November.
Chamisa primed his supporters for a confrontation Tuesday by declaring a victory long before the counting had been completed.
The violence recalled the bloodshed that followed a disputed election in 2008, which the opposition claimed to have won outright. Instead, there was a presidential runoff, during which regime supporters engaged in a countrywide campaign of intimidation and violence that eventually forced the opposition candidate to withdraw. Around 200 of his supporters were killed.
Just before the violence broke out Wednesday, observer missions from around the world released preliminary statements. They largely withheld judgment on the allegations of rigging and other irregularities in Monday’s contest, though most noted polarization and bias in the media ahead of the election.
“In some senses, up to this point, the conduct of the polls has had a number of positive features,” said Elmar Brok, leader of the European Union’s observer mission. But he also criticized the election commission’s “lack of transparency” and “some problems around polling stations” on election day. He said he did not understand why the election commission was taking so long to release results and predicted that it would lose credibility with further delays.
“A true level playing field has not yet been achieved,” Brok said.
A prominent election observer, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned that delays in announcing the results could feed “suspicions, tensions and volatility.”
“The more the presidential vote is delayed, the more it calls into question the population’s confidence in the election process,” she said.
Protesters surrounded vehicles belonging to the observer missions as they passed through downtown Harare on Wednesday on their way to give their preliminary report briefings.
“What they have done is intimidate people in the rural areas, saying, ‘We will kill you if you vote MDC’ and so on, and then the international observers say this election was free and fair. Why are they even here then?” asked Wellington Chigwendere, one of the protesters. “It is so obvious that rigging has taken place since Monday. There is a mountain of evidence. We will not live and die in such a Zimbabwe.
“What you see here is real support — not people being brought on buses like ZANU-PF does,” he said, referring to the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.
On Wednesday, the election commission announced that ZANU-PF had taken the majority of the seats in the parliament, winning 109 out of 210, with 41 going to the opposition MDC and 58 yet to be allocated.
The United States and the European Union have been clear that a credible election is their foremost condition for the lifting of sanctions on various Mugabe-era officials and their family members, as well as for backing a bailout for Zimbabwe from the International Monetary Fund.
Those hopes could be threatened if MDC supporters feel that the election was marred by questions and abuses, as frequently happened under Mugabe.
“I will stay here until Chamisa is president,” said Amandishe Muzhinji, who returned from Swaziland, where he works as a migrant laborer, to vote in Monday’s election. “I will not allow my vote to be stolen in plain sight.”
The opposition alleges that irregularities occurred, saying that voting results were not posted, as required by law, outside one-fifth of polling stations. MDC officials also questioned possible discrepancies in the vote count from small, rural constituencies that they say are posting numbers higher than their voting population.
Mnangagwa’s government, meanwhile, accused Chamisa and his supporters of inciting violence by already declaring he had won the election, the first after Mugabe stepped down in November.
If neither candidate receives an outright majority, there will be a Sept. 8 runoff.
Paul Schemm in Swansea, Wales, and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.