A chaotic presidential election left Zimbabweans anxiously awaiting the outcome on Thursday after thousands were forced to wait overnight to vote and the police arrested dozens of independent election observers tasked with ensuring a fair election.
Voting in Zimbabwe, a nation of 16 million people in southern Africa, was supposed to run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday. But many polling stations, almost exclusively in urban areas that tend to favor opposition parties, had to stay open into Thursday because their ballots were not delivered until late the previous afternoon.
As early results trickled out, supporters of the main candidates — the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who leads the governing ZANU-PF party, and Nelson Chamisa, head of the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change — all claimed they were on the path to victory.
For many, Mr. Mnangagwa has represented a continuation of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, running an increasingly autocratic government that has failed to reverse a long-term economic crisis and isolating Zimbabwe from the West. Mr. Chamisa has sold himself as a fresh start and has vowed to re-engage with the world, particularly with the United States and Europe.
The significant disorganization with the voting was unusual even by the standards of Zimbabwe’s historically tumultuous elections, analysts said.
Officials from Citizens Coalition for Change cried foul that the disruption was a deliberate attempt by the national electoral commission to tilt the playing field in favor of Mr. Mnangagwa because rural areas, his stronghold, did not experience the delays that were reported in urban communities, where Mr. Chamisa is more popular.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in the country’s capital, Harare, said that the turmoil was “historic in terms of election mismanagement” and “in terms of how the incumbent can attempt to manipulate elections in such a brazen manner.”
Suspicions that the ZANU-PF-controlled government was trying to affect the outcome were heightened when the police raided nonpartisan election observation organizations in Harare on Wednesday night.
The raids drew international condemnation, with security forces arresting 41 workers from the Election Resource Center and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which has monitored the country’s elections for two decades. The authorities accused the organizations of trying to sow discord by releasing results early.
ZANU-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, pushed back against accusations of electoral interference. Christopher Mutsvangwa, the party’s spokesman, blamed the tardy ballot deliveries on opposition parties, saying that court challenges they had filed over candidates had caused the delays.
“All in all, Zimbabweans voted in peace and forbearance as they braved and waited out challenges,” he said.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which administers the voting, echoed Mr. Mutsvangwa’s argument, also blaming court challenges for the difficulties. The commission has been widely viewed with suspicion because several officials have close ties to ZANU-PF.
Many Zimbabweans in areas affected by the voting problems expressed intense frustration.
Gabu Nhete, a retired factory worker, described waiting hours for ballots to arrive on Wednesday evening at his polling station in a suburb of Bulawayo, a city in the south. When they still had not turned up by 1 a.m., he went home, he said, and returned at 6 on Thursday morning, when he was finally able to vote.
“I waited hours to vote because I knew it was important,” he said. “So I hope this election will give pensioners some dignity and we can get something better for all the years we spent working.”
In the raid of the election observers’ offices, officers seized 93 smartphones, 38 laptops and other electronic devices, a police spokesman, Paul Nyathi, told reporters in Harare. Mr. Nyathi said that observers had been collecting voting statistics and vote counts and that “the disinformation was being fed” to certain people. He did not specify who might have been the recipients of the information. In Zimbabwe, it is illegal to publish election results before the official announcement.
But in a joint statement, the Election Resource Center and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network denied doing anything nefarious or illegal. The organizations have deployed more than 5,600 observers across the country who were accredited by the electoral commission to monitor the voting. The observers send results that are publicly posted at the polling stations to a command center, where they are analyzed and used to confirm the official results.
The raid severely undermined the organizations’ “ability to promote transparency and accountability of the election,” they said in a statement.
In the election in 2018, the election support network determined that the official result, a slight victory for Mr. Mnangagwa, was accurate.
Tendai Marima contributed reporting from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and Jeffrey Moyo from Harare.