By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Zimbabwe — Protests in Zimbabwe’s capital turned violent on Wednesday as demonstrators called the country’s elections a sham and armed soldiers swept the streets. At least three people were reported dead.
On Thursday, the army ordered the shutdown of Harare’s city center, shopkeepers told the local news media, but a presidential spokesman denied an order had been given. The Election Commission also said it would announced the results of Monday’s presidential election “very soon,” as the international community called for restraint.
The elections — the first since the fall of the longtime president, Robert Mugabe — had been largely peaceful. But large crowds of protesters supporting the opposition alliance gathered on Wednesday outside the Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare, the capital, as early results revealed a parliamentary victory for the governing party.
Police officers fired live ammunition to disperse protesters, who fought back with stones. Tear gas was also used on the demonstrators, and a military helicopter flew above the capital.
“If this fails, we will go physical,” Denis Chauke, an activist in his 20s who supports the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, said at the gate of the hotel. “We will fight for our win.”
The alliance has accused the governing ZANU-PF party of trying to rig the results.
ZANU-PF secured 145 of 210 seats in the National Assembly, the Electoral Commission announced on Wednesday. The commission delayed announcing the results of the presidential race, between President Emmerson Mnangagwa of ZANU-PF and the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, until Thursday.
The ZANU-PF party’s spokesman, Paul Mangwana, dismissed the protesters’ actions as “banditry” and said that they had damaged property in the capital.
Asked whether it was permissible for soldiers to use live ammunition on unarmed civilians, Mr. Mangwana said: “It is regrettable that it had to happen like that, but you don’t leave bandits causing disorder. They are bandits, and they should be treated as bandits.”
In a statement read on state media, Mr. Mnangagwa also blamed opposition activists for Wednesday’s unrest. The state broadcaster, which announced the three deaths, did not provide details.
On Twitter, the United States Embassy in Harare said it was “deeply concerned” about the violence and urged the army to use “restraint.” The United Nations’ secretary general, Antonio Guterres, and a minister from Britain’s foreign office also expressed concern, according to news reports.
Rashweat Mkundu, a former director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, faulted the Electoral Commission in part for the turmoil. Its failings, he said, “included poor communication, which created distrust and partly contributed to ongoing opposition disquiet.”
“The burden of governance now rests on ZANU-PF,” he added, “which faces a highly expectant citizenry yet it is shackled by an inefficient and corrupt public service.”
Although the European Union mission that observed the election noted an “improved political climate, inclusive participation rights and a peaceful vote,” its preliminary statement also said that an “unlevel playing field, intimidation of voters and lack of trust in the process undermined the pre-election environment.”
“These elections were seen as a critical test of Zimbabwe’s reform process,” the mission’s chief observer, Elmar Brok, who is also a member of the European Parliament, said of the vote, which attracted a turnout of 70 percent. “In some senses, up to this point, the conduct of the polls has had a number of positive features, but in other senses serious concerns remain.”
Now we hope for a transparent results process,” he added, expressing concerns over pre-electoral practices like media bias and some problems around polling stations on Election Day.
A statement from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, pro-democracy organizations, also cited voting problems, “especially in densely populated areas in Harare, including long lines and confusion among some voters about which sub-polling place was theirs.”
The unrest on Wednesday was far lower than the level reached in the country’s 2008 elections, which were marred by violence.
In the first round of that presidential vote, Mr. Mugabe was defeated by Morgan Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change’s leader at the time. Amid widespread violence that left at least 85 opposition supporters dead and thousands injured, however, Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff vote days before it was scheduled to take place. Mr. Mugabe was then declared the winner.