HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Morgan Tsvangirai, the challenger to Zimbabwe's longtime president, Robert Mugabe, declared on Thursday that the country's presidential election had been a "huge farce" and called upon international observers to investigate.
Mr. Tsvangirai said the vote failed to meet "international standards for a credible, legitimate, free and fair election." The Zimbabwe Election Commission has not released official election results, but from the tone of Mr. Tsvangirai's statement it appeared that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was headed for defeat.
"In our view, the outcome of this election is illegitimate," Mr. Tsvangirai said in a statement. "But more importantly, the shoddy manner in which it has been conducted and the consequent illegitimacy of the result will plunge this country into a serious crisis."
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of local groups that observed the election, also said that the election was marred by serious problems despite the lack of violence.
"We should not judge this election on the basis of peace and calm," the group said. "There are other factors to take into account."
It said that as many as a million urban voters had been disenfranchised, which would have a particularly negative impact on the challengers, since the Movement for Democratic Change's support base is largely in Zimbabwe's cities.
Millions of Zimbabweans went to the polls in what many here were calling the most pivotal election since the country voted out white rule. Despite frigid predawn temperatures, people lined up before the polling stations opened on Wednesday, eager to decide whether to end or extend the three-decade tenure of Mr. Mugabe, a liberation war hero who still holds a tight grip on the country.
For Nyaradzai Majuru, the choice of how to cast her ballot was simple. Before she and her husband received a two-acre plot of land that had been seized from a white farmer several years ago, they were penniless subsistence farmers on a scrap of communal land. Now, they grow green beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages that they sell in the market.
"Our life is better now because of President Mugabe," said Ms. Majuru, 27, her youngest child tied to her back with a blanket, referring to Mr. Mugabe, 89, who has led this country since it shook off white rule in 1980. "I support him all the way."
But for 40-year-old Elizabeth, a janitor at an agricultural college in this small farming town 20 miles north of the capital, life has grown worse under Mr. Mugabe's rule. Hyperinflation wiped out her savings. Hunger gnawed at her family. A lucky few got land, but the country's economy was destroyed, she said, declining to give her last name out of fear of reprisals by the government.
"We need change in this country," Elizabeth said. "We are tired of this old man."
In Harare, the capital, on Wednesday, there was none of the violence and intimidation that characterized the disastrous 2008 presidential election season, when 200 people died in a state-sponsored crackdown on the opposition and others seen as supporting it.
The election pit Mr. Mugabe against the former union organizer, Mr. Tsvangiri, who won the most votes in the first round of the election in 2008 but refused to participate in a runoff because of the attacks on his supporters. A deal brokered by regional powers put the two rivals into an uneasy power-sharing agreement, and both are now seeking an outright victory to govern alone.
"It is quite an emotional moment sometimes when you see all these people after all the conflict, the stalemate, the suspicion, the hostility," Mr. Tsvangirai said on Wednesday after casting his ballot. "I think there is a sense of calmness that finally Zimbabwe will be able to move on again."
Sporadic problems were reported in a number of regions. Lines were long in urban areas, raising concerns that not everyone would be able to vote Wednesday. The challengers said the Zimbabwe Election Commission had deliberately reduced the number of polling stations in their strongholds to discourage voters, but the commission denied it. Some voters who registered recently found that their names were not on the rolls, but they were able to cast ballots using the registration receipt.
"We've already made clear this election is illegal, illegitimate, unfree and unfair," said Tendai Biti, the secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. "We are participating with a heavy heart."
The planning for the election has been chaotic and rushed because Mr. Mugabe unilaterally set a much earlier election date than other political parties had anticipated.
But early reports from election officials and some monitors said that the voting had gone well. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria who is leading the African Union observer delegation, said that based on initial reports the voting had been peaceful and orderly, and appeared to be free and fair.
Joyce Kazembe, the deputy chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Election Commission, said, "I believe that the election is free and fair." Turnout was very high, the commission said, and it ordered that polling stations stay open until midnight to accommodate people waiting in long lines.
Mr. Mugabe, after casting his ballot, appeared confident of victory in remarks to reporters. Asked if he would serve a full five-year term, he said: "Why not? Why should I field myself if it's to cheat the people and I resign after?"
Fears of rigging remained high. Neil Padmore, 35, brought a pen to the polling station because he had heard people say that the government's pens used special ink that would disappear a few hours after the ballot was cast.
"I am hoping that the sheer volume of the voters will prevent them from rigging," said Mr. Padmore, who runs a company that lays fiber optic cable. "We need change in Zimbabwe. We can't have this draconian environment."
But some voters said Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, deserved to stay in power because they put Zimbabwe's agricultural land, long controlled by a few thousand white commercial farmers, into the hands of black people through seizures.
Amina, a 26-year-old clothing trader who lives in Mbare and asked that only her first name be used, said her brother had been given a farm by the government and was prospering.
"He's getting rich by the season," she said. Her father fought in Mr. Mugabe's insurgent army in the 1970s and lost a leg to a bomb. Mr. Mugabe, she said, made black people masters of their own destiny.
"He always told us the main grievance for the war was that we needed land," she said. "They wanted to be masters of their own country."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.