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Counting begins after polls close in pivotal Zimbabwe election

The electoral commission says it will announce final results within five days.

Polling stations in Zimbabwe have closed after the country’s first election without former leader Robert Mugabe on the ballot, and election officers prepared to start counting.

The electoral commission has said it will announce final results within five days.

Earlier, the main opposition leader said reports of voting delays were a “deliberate attempt” to undermine his supporters.

The allegations by Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, intensified concerns about management of the election and the prospect of a dispute over its outcome.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former deputy president, has promised a credible vote that he hopes will bring international legitimacy and investment. A seriously flawed process could signal more stagnation.

Mugabe, 94, ruled Zimbabwe from independence in 1980 until his resignation in November, and many people are anxious for change.

Mr Chamisa is concerned about delays at polling stations in urban areas, where support for the opposition has traditionally been strong while the ruling Zanu-PF party has dominated many rural areas in past elections marred by violence and irregularities.

“There seems to be a deliberate attempt to suppress and frustrate” urban voters through “unnecessary delays”, Mr Chamisa said on Twitter. He acknowledged there was a “good turnout”.

Long queues had formed outside many polling stations in the capital Harare and elsewhere by the 7am start. Anyone still in line at the 7pm closing time could still vote, although opposition parties were concerned that their supporters could drift away if forced to wait for hours, in the open and without food or drink.

Some observers welcome Zimbabwe’s freer political environment but cite worries about bias in state media, a lack of transparency in ballot printing and reports of intimidation by pro-government traditional leaders who are supposed to stay neutral.

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Emmerson Mnangagwa casts his vote in Kwekwe (Jerome Delay/AP)

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, accused of engineering flawed election wins for Mr Mugabe in the past, has said the vote would be free and fair.

“We need peace and we need everyone to be comfortable to go out and exercise their right to vote without fear,” said Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the commission.

She said she was confident that voting at most of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations would be completed by closing time.

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Nelson Chamisa casts his vote in Harare (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

About 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election viewed by many as an opportunity to move beyond decades of political and economic paralysis.

More than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties were participating. If no presidential candidate wins 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on September 8.

The two main contenders are 75-year-old Mr Mnangagwa, who took over after Mr Mugabe stepped down under military and ruling party pressure last year, and 40-year-old Mr Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who became head of the main opposition party a few months ago after the death of its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

After voting, Mr Mnangagwa said the election was peaceful and that he was committed to a Zimbabwe in which people have the “freedom to express their views, negative or positive”.

Piercing whistles and cheers greeted Mr Chamisa as he voted outside Harare. He said he hoped voting in rural areas, where most of Zimbabwe’s voters are and where the ruling party usually holds sway, will be fair.

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