HARARE Zimbabwe's opposition accused President Robert Mugabe of rigging the country's election to stay in power despite economic disaster and African observers also said they had detected fraud.
Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, faced his strongest challenge in Saturday's election, with veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni exploiting widespread misery caused by the wrecked economy.
As polls closed, Tsvangirai's MDC party said their voters and officials had been turned away from polling stations and erasable voting ink was used to enable fraud by government supporters.
Combined with inflated voter rolls and the printing of 3 million surplus ballot papers, this "ensures that there will be multiple voting," said MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti.
Observers from the Pan-African parliament said in a letter to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission that they had found more than 8,000 non-existent people registered on a piece of empty land in a Harare constituency.
Biti said the MDC had also found "ghost voters" in Harare.
Many Zimbabweans were desperate for change to end the country's economic misery.
The once-prosperous nation is suffering the world's highest inflation rate at more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.
Mugabe blames the collapse on Western sanctions.
"I am voting for change. I am praying for a free and fair election. It is the only way this country can move forward," said Richard Mutedzi, 25, a mechanic who voted in Chitungwiza, 30 km (20 miles) south of Harare.
Mother of three Gertrude Muzanenhamo, 36, voted early in the poor township of Warren Park, telling reporters: "People are dying in hospitals and funeral expenses are very high. How do you expect us to survive? Shop shelves are empty."
Final results are not expected for several days from the presidential, parliamentary and local polls.
The local election observer group ZESN said turnout looked low and some voters were turned away in opposition strongholds.
A local journalist who asked not to be named said thousands of voters had turned out in Mugabe's southern stronghold of Masvingo province. He said village heads appeared to have instructed them to vote for the president.
Most international observers were banned and a team from the regional grouping SADC did not comment on Saturday. Critics say SADC, which has tried to mediate an end to Zimbabwe's crisis, is too soft on Mugabe.
Mugabe displayed his usual confidence when he voted in Harare. "We will succeed. We will conquer," he said.
"Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us. The moment the people stop supporting you, then that's the moment you should quit politics," Mugabe told reporters.
Despite the fraud allegations, Tsvangirai said he would win. "We are absolutely confident that the outcome will be in the favor of the people," he said as he voted in Harare.
Sagodolu Sikhosana, a villager in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland said after voting: "Things have been too hard for too long. I think now there needs to be a change and they need to take us more seriously."
The powerful security forces have backed Mugabe, stoking accusations that he will use his incumbent power to rig victory.
If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote the election will go into a second round in three weeks, when the two opposition parties would likely unite.
Mugabe said a second round was unlikely.
"We are not used to boxing matches where we go from round one to round two. We just knock each other out," he said.
(Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka, Stella Mapenzauswa, MacDonald Dzirutwe and Muchena Zigomo)
(Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Giles Elgood)