Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, called on Zimbabweans to defend their vote, as President Robert Mugabe appeared to be on course for a disputed victory in elections that have attracted near-universal condemnation.
"This government has fraudulently once again betrayed the people," said Mr Tsvangirai in what was seen as an indirect call for a mass uprising in response to what the opposition called "rigged results".
With more than half the contested seats counted, the ruling party had taken 37, against 33 seats for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which had taken an earlier lead from its urban bastions.
A total of 120 seats were contested in Thursday's parliamentary election, which the MDC and Western countries have already labelled as unfairly tilted toward Zanu-PF. With Mr Mugabe constitutionally empowered to appoint an extra 30 seats, this means he was effectively leading with 67 seats.
Opposition calls for a popular protest were echoed by the Most Rev Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's top Catholic prelate. "If it is seen that they have rigged the election, and it's most likely that they did, I am suggesting that the people think about a peaceful uprising and try to have a leader that can lead them out of this situation."
The seats counted during the MDC's early lead were from its urban strongholds, a tactic normally used by Mr Mugabe to create a false semblance of fairness in the process.
Mr Tsvangirai has demanded clarification of glaring discrepancies in the results being reported by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), appointed by Mr Mugabe. It announced that 14,812 people had voted in Manyame constituency after polls closed. When the commission reported the result there, it said the President's nephew, Patrick Mugabe-Zhuwao, had won the seat by more with 15,000 votes out of a total of 24,000.
The ZEC has refused to comment on the contradictory figures. Similar discrepancies were reported in several other constituencies currently held by the opposition whose outcomes were yet to be announced.
David Coltart, the MDC's MP for Bulawayo South, said: "There have been widespread irregularities and breaches of electoral law. The police were ejecting MDC election agents whilst the balloting took place ... If it was happening here in an urban constituency, it was worse in the rural areas where there is no communication."
Of the 25 seats Mr Mugabe had won, at least a dozen were previously held by the opposition. Mr Tsvangirai said the MDC would not settle for merely appealing the result in Zimbabwe's biased courts, a strong hint that mass action is being contemplated. The government said yesterday it was ready to crush any such uprising.
Mr Mugabe has already mobilised the army, strengthened by youth militia of up to 15,000, who are being heavily armed. Thousands of soldiers, police and the youth militia voted secretly for the ruling party a few days before public polling opened. All army ballots were cast openly and in front of commanders at the various barracks. The same was done in the last election with soldiers and police officials being told their ballots could not be secret.
The government also relocates 100,000 teachers, known to be opposition supporters, away from their constituencies to help in running polling stations.
Even officials from the regional Southern Africa Development Community, allies of Mr Mugabe, who had declared the poll free and fair despite evidence of rigging, expressed concern at the number of voters turned away from opposition urban strongholds. The independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network said about 25 per cent of eligible voters had been turned away.
President Mugabe's stolen victory means there is no respite for the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe.Reuse content