By MacDonald Dzirutwe and Joe Brock
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition accused the election commission on Tuesday of deliberately delaying results of this week's vote to favour the ruling party, reporting irregularities in the first poll since the removal of Robert Mugabe in a November coup.
Even though the election passed off peacefully, several water cannon trucks patrolled outside the central Harare headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as its red-shirted supporters danced in the streets.
Some local results from parallel parliamentary elections have been declared but the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has yet to produce any figures from Monday's presidential vote.
ZEC chief Priscilla Chigumba said the presidential result may not be ready until Saturday.
Former MDC finance minister Tendai Biti and ZESN, the main domestic election monitor, said one in five polling stations - more than 2,000 in all - had not physically posted tallies on their doors, as required by law.
That omission gave room for the ZEC, which ZESN and the opposition have accused of bias, to manipulate the results in favour of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF party, Biti said.
"There is a deliberate delay in formally announcing results," Biti told a news conference, characterising it as "interference with the people's will".
ZESN and other civil society groups were preparing a legal challenge to force the results into the open, Biti said.
ZEC said there was no rigging or cheating in the vote, whose credibility is vital in Zimbabwe's attempts to emerge from the pariah status and economic decay into which it sank in the latter half of Mugabe's nearly four decades in charge.
However, ZEC did not explain the failure by the polling stations to post results.
The poll is a two-horse race between 75-year-old Mnangagwa, a long-serving security chief who took over after Mugabe's removal, and 40-year-old MDC leader Nelson Chamisa.
Both men have expressed confidence in victory although Western diplomats and local observer groups said the race, which saw a turnout of 75 percent, was too close to call.
"The information from our representatives on the ground is extremely positive!" Mnangagwa said on his official Twitter feed.
Chamisa had earlier said he was poised for victory, writing on Twitter: "Awaiting ZEC to perform their constitutional duty to officially announce the people's election results and we are ready to form the next government."
As well as electing a president, Zimbabweans were voting for 210 members of parliament and more than 9,000 councillors.
The final outcome may not be known until Aug. 4. In the absence of a clear winner, a run-off will be held on Sept. 8.
The winner must put Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years under Mugabe tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation that brought one of Africa's most promising economies to its knees.
Election monitor sources said Monday's vote appeared to have passed without major foul play although they noted some coercion and intimidation of voters in rural areas by ZANU-PF and said state media was biased towards the ruling party.
Chamisa questioned the independence of the ZEC and said voters were being suppressed in urban areas where he is popular. ZANU-PF has denied any misconduct.
Whatever the outcome, unrest remains possible. If the MDC loses and contests the result there could be street protests. Protracted court battles could also spark violence and delay much-needed economic reforms.
Should Mnangagwa lose, many Zimbabweans fear some in the ruling party may not accept the result, particularly given the huge risks some senior cadres and army officers took in removing Mugabe. Some of the organisers of the coup are now in government, including Vice President Constantino Chiwenga.
"THIS IS AFRICA"
Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF have said they will accept the result, but after a string of questionable elections under Mugabe, many Zimbabweans remained sceptical.
"If this guy loses there is no way they will hand over power," said Gift Machekera, pointing at a huge banner of Mnangagwa hanging on a building in Harare. "Those who have the guns have the power. This is Africa."
Several civil society groups are collating results from 10,985 polling posts in parallel with ZEC but are not allowed to release results early. A source at one group said it was too early to call a winner but it was looking "very close".
In the capital Harare, an MDC stronghold, results posted outside some polling stations showed Chamisa winning by wide margins, but Mnangagwa was expected to claw back ground in ZANU-PF's rural heartland. Urban results tend to emerge quicker than those from rural outposts.
The run-up to Monday's vote was peaceful compared with past elections under Mugabe, where the ruling party and veterans of the 1970s independence struggle were accused of violence against opponents. Dozens of people were killed ahead of a runoff in 2008 between Mugabe and MDC-founder Morgan Tsvangirai, who died of cancer in February.
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.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe and Joe Brock; Editing by Ed Cropley, Peter Graff and David Stamp)