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HARARE (AFP) – Robert Mugabe's rivals rubbished his claim to election victory, branding the vote a "sham" and urging "passive resistance" as early results showed the Zimbabwean president's party taking a clear lead.
A top member of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party claimed Mugabe had trounced Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Wednesday's presidential and parliamentary elections.
"We have romped (to victory) in a very emphatic manner," said the party member who asked not to be named. "We have won all of them, including the presidential and parliamentary" (votes).
First official results from the disputed national assembly elections showed Mugabe's party storming ahead, winning 52 of 62 seats announced.
Zimbabwe's 6.4 million eligible voters were choosing a president, 210 lawmakers and municipal councillors.
But Tsvangirai, who is making his third bid to end 89-year-old Mugabe's 33-year rule, quickly slapped down the victory claims.
"It's a sham election that does not reflect the will of the people," he said, pointing to a litany of alleged irregularities.
"In our view this election is null and void," he added. "This election has been a huge farce."
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said the count has been completed and results are now being collated from the first vote since bloody polls in 2008 led to an uneasy power-sharing deal between Tsvangirai and Mugabe.
Tsvangirai stopped short of claiming victory himself, a move that could have enflamed tensions in a country where political violence is common.
But top MDC official Roy Bennett called for a campaign of "passive resistance."
"I'm talking about people completely shutting the country down -- don't pay any bills, don't attend work, just bring the country to a standstill."
"There needs to be resistance against this theft and the people of Zimbabwe need to speak out strongly."
Foreign diplomats and independent Zimbabwean election observers also expressed grave misgivings about the conduct of the poll.
"Up to a million voters were disenfranchised," said Solomon Zwana, chairman of Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which has 7,000 observers. "The election is seriously compromised."
The Catholic Church -- which has 3,000 people on the ground -- said it was premature to call a winner but there was a "strong feeling" across the country that Mugabe would lose.
"If certain people feel their choice was not accepted, they may resort to violence. That potential is still there," a church spokesman said.
Since no Western groups were allowed to monitor the polls, the view of observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) may now be pivotal in deciding how the international community reacts.
The SADC said it will deliver its verdict on Friday.
Meanwhile the African Union, accused of whitewashing problems in the run-up to the vote, said initial reports indicated it was "peaceful, orderly, free and fair".
While there were "little incidences here and there", these did not flaw the election "to the point of not reflecting the will of the people," judged former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who led the AU mission.
Jeffrey Smith, from the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said that while it would be wrong to rush to disregard the final results, "we must also not be blind to potential irregularities both leading up to the vote and on the (voting) day."
After years of international sanctions, there had been hopes that a free election would allow Zimbabwe to reset relations with the West.
Final results are expected within five days of the election and police had warned that anyone trying to release unofficial figures ahead of time risked being arrested.
Mugabe himself had even threatened to arrest Tsvangirai if he tried to declare an early victory.
On Tuesday the firebrand vowed to step down if Tsvangirai won, saying: "If you lose you must surrender."
Mugabe shot to prominence as a hero of Africa's liberation movement, guiding Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 from Britain and white minority rule.
But his military-backed rule has been marked by controversial land reforms, a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections that have brought international sanctions and made him a pariah in the West.
As the economy recovers from a crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested" and dismiss concerns about his age.
Mugabe had focused his campaign on attacking homosexuals and on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.
Tsvangirai himself had predicted the MDC would win "quite resoundingly".
The 61-year-old former union boss won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed attacks.
Tsvangirai hoped his plans to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services would deliver a long-awaited victory.
But some Western analysts said this could be Tsvangirai's last bid at the country's top job if the MDC fails to prevent Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, sweeping to a seventh term.