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Zimbabwe police said they arrested 41 workers for poll monitoring groups and seized the computers and other equipment they were using to tabulate the results of vote counting Thursday in the southern African nation’s widely delayed presidential election.
Those arrested were working with two accredited monitoring organizations — the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network and the Election Resource Center — which deployed over 7,500 observers nationwide. Police spokesperson Paul Nyathi accused them of being involved in “subversive and criminal activities” as part of an opposition plan to fabricate the results.
“These figures were being supplied by some observers and political party agents,” Nyathi said.
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The arrests, made during raids on various locations including a hotel, were criticized by the group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which said the workers were carrying out their mandate as accredited election observers.
Zimbabwe’s long history of disputed elections has left many wary of official results. Nearly half of the respondents in a pre-election survey by Afrobarometer, a prominent research organization, said they feared “that the announced results will not reflect counted results.”
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, who seeks a second term, used his presidential powers to extend balloting to Thursday night at dozens of polling stations after voting was delayed by up to 10 hours in many areas.
His main challenger, Nelson Chamisa, a 45-year-old lawyer who narrowly lost a disputed election in 2018, described the voting as a sham, saying the delays were aimed at disenfranchising voters in his urban strongholds.
Ballot papers were still being printed late Wednesday, hours after voting should have closed. At other polling stations, counting of ballots began. Some frustrated voters slept at polling stations in the capital, Harare, snuggling under blankets or lighting fires to keep warm.
“We spent the whole night here,” said Cadwell Munjoma, who was wearing an overcoat at a polling station in the middle-class Mabelreign suburb. “This is the first time in my life seeing a situation where people cannot vote because papers are not there. It’s not making sense.”
The opposition and various civic groups have said they will independently tabulate results that are posted outside polling stations after votes are counted.
Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa casts a ballot in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Mnangagwa called Zimbabwe a “master” of democracy and criticized Western countries that expressed concern about the credibility of the voting weeks ago.
At many polling stations in Harare and other urban areas, people shoved and shouted at election officials and police officers after being told ballot papers had run out. The state-run Herald newspaper quoted Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi as saying the printing of ballot papers would only be complete late Wednesday night.
Some polling stations opened two hours after the official closing time, while others suspended voting and officials asked people to return in the morning.
Some waiting voters washed their faces with plastic buckets. Others were glued to their phones, urging neighbors and family members who had gone home for the night to return and prepare to vote.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission acknowledged the late distribution of ballot papers at some polling stations and blamed it on printing delays “arising from numerous court challenges.” Governing party activists and the opposition had brought a flurry of cases over who could run in both presidential and parliamentary elections.
This is the second general election since the ouster of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017.
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The southern African nation of 15 million people has vast mineral resources, including Africa’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in making electric car batteries. But watchdogs have long alleged that widespread corruption and mismanagement have gutted much of the country’s potential.
Ahead of the election, opposition and rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Mnangagwa of seeking to silence dissent amid rising tensions due to a currency crisis, a sharp hike in food prices, a weakening public health system and a lack of formal jobs.
Mnangagwa was a close ally of Mugabe and served as vice president before a fallout ahead of the 2017 coup. He has sought to portray himself as a reformer, but many accuse him of being even more repressive.
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Zimbabwe has been under United States and European Union sanctions for the past two decades over allegations of human rights abuses, charges denied by the governing party. Mnangagwa has repeated much of Mugabe’s rhetoric against the West, accusing it of seeking to topple his regime.