Mnangagwa Takes Lead in Zimbabwe’s First Election Since Mugabe’s FallHARARE, Zimbabwe — Emmerson Mnangagwa, who seized power from President Robert Mugabe in a coup last year after serving as his enforcer for decades, took a clear lead on Thursday in Zimbabwe’s disputed presidential election, suggesting that the nation’s dominant party was poised to continue its control of the government.
The results were announced late Thursday after a largely peaceful campaign that was marred by an outbreak of violence this week that claimed six lives in Harare, the capital.
The main opposition coalition, which had accused election officials of trying to rob it of victory in Monday’s voting, did not immediately respond to the partial results. The opposition’s response will influence greatly how the vote is assessed by Western election observers and governments, whose endorsement is necessary for the resumption of desperately needed economic assistance.
For Zimbabwe, the election underscored the painful process of emerging from 37 years of brutal rule under Mr. Mugabe. With Western observers still reserving judgment, it was not yet clear whether this election would pass the test and give Mr. Mnangagwa of the ruling ZANU-PF party legitimacy as a democratically chosen leader.
With nine of ten provinces having reported results Thursday evening, Mr. Mnangagwa, 75, was leading with about 2.1 million votes compared with 1.9 million for Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, election officials announced. The remaining province to announce results was a rural stronghold of ZANU-PF.
For most Zimbabweans, who had not known any other leader than Mr. Mugabe, his ouster last year had raised expectations of a new era. But the lead taken by Mr. Mnangagwa, who was Mr. Mugabe’s right-hand man and was behind some of his most repressive policies, underscored that power seemed to be passing from one ZANU-PF die-hard to another. Neither in Zimbabwe nor in the rest of southern Africa has a liberation party lost power.
Competing against a party with a history of rigging elections, Mr. Chamisa, 40, had cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process even before Monday’s vote.
Mr. Chamisa had raised expectations of victory, leading many supporters to believe that anything but a win would be fraud. On Saturday, two days before the vote, he stated that a victory by Mr. Mnangagwa would be “fiction” — even though a poll by Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research organization, had reported Mr. Mnangagwa as slightly ahead.
When opposition supporters began protesting on Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s security forces responded with the brutality they have shown over the decades under Mr. Mugabe, apparently firing live ammunition to disperse protesters.
“We categorically denounce the excessive use of force against unarmed civilians and wish to urge all parties to exercise restraint,” John Dramani Mahama, a former president of Ghana who is leading observers from Commonwealth nations, said in a statement on Thursday.
Mr. Mahama pointed to both the opposition and the government for the deadly violence this week. He expressed “profound sadness at the outbreak of violence by supporters of the opposition and the excessive use of force by the security services.”
On Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s national police national spokeswoman, Charity Charamba, announced the arrests of 18 people in relation to violent protests a day earlier.
Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance began holding angry protests on Wednesday after their leader, Mr. Chamisa, proclaimed victory and accused election officials of manipulating the results, without offering any evidence. In addition, a top aide, Tendai Biti, accused the ruling party in a news conference of plotting to assassinate him and Mr. Chamisa — again without any evidence.
“Both Mnangagwa and Chamisa are power-hungry,” said Kundai Chauke, a private-school teacher in Westlea, a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Harare. “They want power at any cost. You see Mnangagwa sent the army to kill protesters because he does not want them to disturb his power. Chamisa has had protesters on the streets because he wants their noise to help him take power.”
The events marred what had largely been a successful campaign season and vote in a country with a history of violent and fraudulent elections. In the months leading up to Monday’s vote, the opposition was allowed for the first time to hold rallies in ZANU-PF strongholds. Observers from the European Union and the United States, barred for nearly two decades by Mr. Mugabe, were allowed to monitor the campaigning and voting.
Even though the governing party continued to use government resources like the state news media and the army to the advantage of its candidates — creating what the European Union described as an “unlevel playing field” — Zimbabweans grew excited and optimistic about the vote. In one of the largest turnouts in the nation’s history, election officials said that more than 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“When I voted, I was so very excited thinking the elections will bring a difference,” said Jessie Mhambo, a street vendor selling cellphone cards in Westlea. “But now the same stress people had during Mugabe is back. There is no hope. We are stuck with our problems.”
Mr. Chamisa edged out rivals to take the reins of the main opposition party after the death in February of its longtime leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Though the party was fractured, Mr. Chamisa, an energetic and powerful speaker, held scores of successful rallies across the nation.
In a strange political realignment, Mr. Chamisa also spoke favorably on a few occasions of Mr. Mugabe, who had violently suppressed his party in the past. In 2008, the opposition leader Mr. Tsvangirai led in the first round of the presidential election but was forced to withdraw from a runoff after Mr. Mugabe unleashed security forces on opposition supporters.
On Sunday, on the eve of the vote, Mr. Mugabe said he would vote against Mr. Mnangagwa, and indicated his preference for Mr. Chamisa. Criticized by some of his supporters for his seemingly amicable ties with Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Chamisa held a news conference to distance himself from Mr. Mugabe and to deny accusations in the state media that his campaign had been financed by the former president.
Mr. Mugabe, who is now 94, was ousted in November by army leaders backing Mr. Mnangagwa. Though Mr. Mnangagwa had acted for decades as Mr. Mugabe’s right-hand man, including orchestrating vote-rigging in previous elections, he has become known as a pragmatist. He has courted Western governments and investors, declaring that Zimbabwe was open for business.
But foreign investors and governments have reserved judgment, waiting for the outcome of the election.
Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed after Mr. Mugabe encouraged the violent takeover of farms owned by white citizens in the early 2000s. Zimbabwe became a pariah in the West, and was cut off from loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Western officials have said that they would consider the resumption of loans only after a credible election.