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Zimbabwe riot police stand by as claims of vote-fixing by Mugabe shroud general election

Both Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC predict landslide victories

Heavily armed riot police have been deployed in potential flashpoints as voters prepared to go to the polls today to cast their ballot in a showdown between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

State radio said thousands of officers had been sent to the central Midlands province, while truckloads of police with automatic rifles and grenade launchers patrolled in the Harare townships of Highfield and Mbare. The run-down districts of the capital are hotbeds of support for Mr Tsvangirai and were at the centre of post-election violence in 2008, in which 200 people linked to his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were killed.

This year's presidential and parliamentary race will end four years of fractious unity government. With no reliable opinion polls, it is hard to tell whether 61-year-old Mr Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to unseat his 89-year-old rival. Both the MDC and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party predict landslide victories. However, it is possible neither leading candidate will emerge an outright winner, triggering a September run-off.

Western observers have been barred, leaving the task of independent oversight to 500 regional and 7,000 domestic monitors. The final results must be released within five days but may come sooner.

In an editorial in the domestic News Day newspaper and the Washington Post, Mr Tsvangirai urged African monitors not to give the vote a seal of approval merely because they do not witness any bloodshed. "Mugabe... is fixing this election in a more sophisticated fashion than... beatings, killings and intimidation," he wrote.