Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET
When voters took to the polls Monday in Zimbabwe, the air was thick with anticipation for a new political era following the ouster of strongman Robert Mugabe. But with that excitement came the dread that violence and alleged fraud, which for so long dogged elections during Mugabe's 37-year rule, might yet rear their heads again.
Now, nearly 48 hours after polls closed, voters still await an official answer about who won the country's presidential election — and suspicion of electoral wrongdoing has gathered intensity in the capital city's streets, where deadly violence erupted Wednesday.
Not long after Zimbabwe's electoral commission announced that the ruling party was on course for a landslide win in parliamentary elections, opposition protesters marched to the commission's headquarters in the capital, Harare. Their allegation: The commission has delayed its full official announcement in order to rig the vote for incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.
The demonstrators, most of whom were supporters from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, unilaterally declared the victory of their own candidate, Nelson Chamisa. Amid the clamor of celebration and anger — which saw protesters throwing stones, setting fires and attempting to breach at least one official compound — security forces confronted them armed with live ammunition, armed vehicles and water cannons.
Three people were killed in the ensuing melee, according to Zimbabwe state TV.
Speaking with the broadcaster on Wednesday, Mnangagwa laid the blame for the violence with the opposition party.
"We hold the opposition MDC Alliance and its whole leadership responsible for this disturbance of national peace, which was meant to disrupt the electoral process," he said. "Equally, we hold the party and its leadership responsible for any loss of life, injury or damage of property that arise from these acts of political violence which they have aided and abetted."
The protesters in Harare offered a different account to NPR's Eyder Peralta.
"They're out on the streets saying, 'We are going to defend our vote,' " he reports, adding that the partial release of parliamentary results was enough to convince protesters of alleged fraud. "A lot of the protesters I've spoken to say, 'We don't need to see any more. We know what's happening here. We've seen it happen before, and our votes are being stolen.' "
Or, as another protester explained to Eyder: "If you see us running the streets like this, this is not what we want — but we are fighting for our freedom."
The U.S. Embassy in Harare expressed its concerns with the unrest and how security forces were dealing with it, calling for calm and urging authorities to "use restraint."
"Zimbabwe has an historic opportunity to move the country towards a brighter future for all its citizens," diplomatic staff said in a statement Wednesday. "Violence cannot be a part of that process."
The unrest bodes ill for a country that has suffered multiple violent election cycles. Mugabe, 94, had ruled the country since it declared its independence from minority-white rule in 1980, steadily metamorphosing from a hero of the liberation to an iron-fisted leader intolerant of dissent. Waves of bloodshed have roiled previous general elections, as Mugabe's government cracked down on his increasingly restive people.
When Mugabe resigned last November, bowing to pressure from his former ally Mnangagwa and the military, observers both at home and abroad heralded Monday's general elections — which will decide presidential, parliamentary and local seats — as an opportunity for a clean slate. And authorities welcomed it as such, as well, inviting international election monitors to observe the elections for the first time in about 16 years.
Yet several of those observers, including a team sent by the European Union, have expressed doubts about how the elections have been conducted — noting concerns such as "intimidation of voters, [the electoral commission's] lack of transparency in preparations, media bias and some problems around polling stations on election day."
"For Zimbabwe to embrace democracy and move on from the past, such practices must stop," the team's chief observer, Elmar Brok, said in a statement released Wednesday. "The process must be credible and transparent, then whoever wins this election, Zimbabwe can move on, and the people of Zimbabwe can be the real winners."
Mnangagwa, a longtime ZANU-PF member with a record of violence during his time in government, called on Zimbabwe's voters to "desist from provocative declarations and statements."
"We must all demonstrate patience and maturity, and act in a way that puts our people and their safety first," he tweeted Wednesday. "Now is the time for responsibility and above all, peace."
His opponent Chamisa, however, was not prepared to wait on the release of official results, which he has already derided as fake. By Wednesday, he was declaring victory, thanking his supporters and saying his party has won the popular vote, without offering proof.
"You voted for total Change in this past election!" the lawyer and minister said. "We have won this one together. No amount of results manipulation will alter your WILL."