MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa, centre, waves to supporters as he arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 30 2018. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS
MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa, centre, waves to supporters as he arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 30 2018. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

Harare — Zimbabwe held its first election on Monday since former leader Robert Mugabe was ousted in a de facto coup, but the opposition leader alleged voter suppression, raising fears of a disputed poll result.

Nelson Chamisa, leader of a coalition of opposition group, is the main challenger to President Emmerson Mnangagwa. While Mnangagwa is viewed as the frontrunner, the latest poll shows a tight race.

The election winner faces the task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation that crippled a country that once was one of the continent’s most promising economies.

Chamisa on Monday said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was impeding voting in urban areas where he enjoys strong support but gave no evidence to back the claim.

"The people’s will being negated and undermined due to these deliberate and unnecessary delays," he said in a tweet. The ZEC was not immediately available to comment. It has denied Chamisa’s previous allegations of bias.

Chamisa said his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would win if there was no "ballot mischief", making it likely he will challenge the outcome if Mnangagwa prevails. A contested result is likely to lead to protests and possible violence.

Dozens of people were killed ahead of a runoff in 2008 between Mugabe and MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai, who died of cancer in February.

A credible vote is essential if Zimbabwe is to exit painful sanctions and secure the donor funding and investment needed to stem chronic cash shortages. As a result, the views of election observers are seen as crucial.

EU chief observer Elmar Brok said many voters, particularly young women, left voting queues in frustration at long delays. The EU has not yet concluded how to judge the vote, he said.

"In some cases it [voting] works very smoothly but in other cases we see that it is totally disorganised and that people become angry, people leave," Brok told reporters in Harare, adding that it was unclear whether the voting problems stemmed from coincidence or bad organisation.

Mugabe emerged on the eve of the election to announce he would vote for the opposition, surprising Mnangagwa, who accused him of striking a deal with Chamisa.

Mugabe made no comment to reporters as he cast his ballot accompanied by his wife, Grace. A huge crowd gathered outside, some cheering, many booing.

"I can assure you that this country is enjoying democratic space which has never been experienced before," Mnangagwa told reporters after voting in Kwekwe.

Opinion polls give the former intelligence chief only a slim lead over Chamisa. There will be a runoff on September 8 if no candidate wins more than half the votes.

Elections under Mugabe were often marred by intimidation, rigging and violence but the consensus is the build-up to this vote has been better than before, although Chamisa complained about a flawed voters’ roll and opaque ballot paper printing.

"Victory is certain, the people have spoken," Chamisa said after casting his ballot in Harare. "I have no doubt that by the end of today we should be clear as to an emphatic voice for change."

Polling stations opened at 7am and closed at 7pm. Zimbabweans are also electing 210 MPs and more than 9,000 councillors.

The EU, US and Commonwealth sent observers.

"It is exciting to see so many Zimbabweans casting ballots," said former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s observer mission. "The public’s faith in the secrecy of the ballot is essential for the credibility of the process. We urge the authorities to do everything possible to ensure the secrecy of [the] vote."