By Gabriele Steinhauser and Bernard Mpofu
HARARE, Zimbabwe—President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who deposed strongman Robert Mugabe and sought to end Zimbabwe’s pariah status, called in the army to violently disperse protesters angered by delays in announcing the winner of the presidential election.
Police said three people died in clashes in the capital, where soldiers toting automatic rifles chased opposition supporters outside the headquarters of the electoral commission. Armored vehicles carrying troops and police in antiriot gear patrolled the city center as an army helicopter circled overhead. Gunshots rang through the air, already thick with tear gas.
The chaotic scenes on the streets of Harare—just two days after Zimbabweans voted in what many said was their freest election in decades—stood in contrast to November, when thousands peacefully celebrated the military’s ouster of Mr. Mugabe after 37 years in power. The violence called into question Mr. Mnangagwa’s commitment to move the southern African nation toward democracy and revive its pummeled economy with international aid.
As nighttime fell over Harare the protesters had dispersed, but police and soldiers continued to patrol the city center. Office workers and shopkeepers who had been holed up inside ran down streets empty of their normal weekday traffic in an effort to get home.
Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change took to the streets in response to the delays in the presidential vote-count and the electoral commission’s announcement earlier Wednesday that the ruling ZANU-PF party had won the majority of seats in Parliament. The MDC’s candidate, Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and part-time pastor, claimed he had won and accused the electoral commission of rigging the result.
“We have won the popular vote,” Mr. Chamisa wrote on Twitter .
President Mnangagwa in turn blamed the MDC and its leadership for the violence. “Some win, while others lose, but those who lose should never translate their disappointment into hooliganism,” he said in a statement on the state broadcaster Wednesday evening.
European and U.S. observers expressed reservations about the election, including the independence of the electoral commission, and urged the commission to quickly release the full results—down to individual polling stations.
“The longer the results are being delayed…the more questions will be raised and concerns will deepen,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian president and Nobel Peace laureate who was part of the observer mission from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
Ms. Johnson Sirleaf urged Zimbabweans unhappy with the election outcome to protest peacefully.
On Wednesday evening, the electoral commission said that—with most constituencies counted—ZANU-PF had won 144 out of 201 seats in Parliament, while the MDC gained 61 seats. But the commission said it may take until Saturday, the maximum time allowed under the constitution, to declare the presidential winner.
The election, the first since 1980 without Mr. Mugabe on the ballot, has been seen as a test of Zimbabwe’s democracy and its commitment to reintegrate into the international community. The nation has been under financial sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union since it violently expelled white farmers in the early 2000s.
Since his inauguration in November, the 75-year-old Mr. Mnangagwa, who was Mr. Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades, has pledged that the political repression that marked his predecessor’s final decades was a thing of the past.
But electoral observers said Wednesday that although the campaign period and voting day had been mostly peaceful, ZANU-PF had used state resources including food aid, intimidation and pressure from traditional leaders as well as biased coverage in state media to gain votes.
“The election failed to meet the mark in a number of ways,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, who is also part of the IRI-NDI mission.
Elmar Brok, an EU lawmaker who heads the bloc’s observer mission, said the ballots for the presidential vote had been counted first in polling stations Monday night. “So I have yet to learn why they will be released last,” he added.
The U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe said it was “deeply concerned by events unfolding in Harare” and asked leaders of both the MDC and ZANU-PF to call for calm from their supporters.
“We further urge the Defense Forces of Zimbabwe to use restraint in dispersing protesters,” it said. “Zimbabwe has an historic opportunity to move the country toward a brighter future. Violence cannot be part of that process.”