As Zimbabweans awaited presidential election results, the ruling party declared victory Thursday as the opposition dismissed the vote as a "huge farce."
Vote counting was under way in the election that pitted incumbent President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai for the third time.
Mugabe, 89, has been at the helm since 1980, the only president the nation has known since it gained independence from Britain. A win would extend his time in office to 38 years.
Even though the nation's electoral commission has not released any numbers, a ruling party official claimed victory.
"There is no doubt whatsoever that we have seen results everywhere in the country so far that ZANU-PF has won," said Didymus Mutasa, a party secretary.
Tsvangirai's party called the vote "null and void," alleging widespread fraud.
"This has been a huge farce," Tsvangirai, 61, said at a news conference in the capital, Harare. "The credibility has been marred by administrative and legal violations which affect the legitimacy of its outcome."
He said irregularities included voter intimidation, unauthorized voter migration and lack of transparency in printing ballot boxes.
But Mutasa dismissed the fraud allegations.
"That is stupidity. If all the leaders were as stupid as Tsvangirai, the world would be a very sad place to live in," he said.
End of coalition government
The election marks an end to an uneasy coalition government between the two leaders formed after violence marred the last poll. At least 200 people were killed and thousands were injured in post-election violence in 2008.
Regional leaders dismissed that election as a sham and pressured Mugabe to form a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, which led to the tense coalition in 2009.
Rights groups have accused the government of intimidating and beating up opposition supporters, and interfering with the polls in the latest election.
But Mugabe has denied the accusations and extended a conciliatory message to his main rival.
"I've got my fair share of criticisms and also dealt back rights and lefts and uppercuts. But that's the game. Although we boxed each other, with Tsvangirai, it's not as hostile as before. It's all over now. We can now shake hands," Mugabe said.
Mugabe to West: Back off
The elections were held under a new constitution endorsed in a March referendum that limits the president to two five-year terms. Mugabe is allowed to seek another term because the rule does not apply retroactively.
Last week, he had a few words for critics of the election, especially the West.
"Keep your pink nose out of our affairs, please," he said in response to criticisms from the United States on his push for elections without key reforms.
About 6.4 million voters in Zimbabwe -- half of the country's population -- were eligible to cast their ballots, according to the electoral commission. Long lines snaked at polling stations, an indication of high voter turnout.
'Will this be the moment?'
Citizens say this year's election is crucial in more ways than one.
Despite the setbacks, it provides another shot at democracy.
"We are still a young country ... our democracy is still young," said Nigel Mugamu, who lives in Harare. "A lot of African countries have changed leadership at least once or twice. We haven't seen a new face. From that perspective, it's an exciting time. Will this be the moment it will happen?"
Hope after hyperinflation
Mugamu said a peaceful election will boost investment, a major concern for the nation, which has tense relations with its major donors.
This is the first poll since Zimbabwe battled hyperinflation that left investors jittery and led many to abandon the country's currency.
In 2009, the nation introduced a 100 trillion-dollar bill that was worth about $300 in U.S. currency. At the time, a loaf of bread cost about 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars.
The hyperinflation forced traders to insist on international currency to hedge against losses.
Despite widespread poverty, the nation has made major strides in its economy since then, experts say.
Since then, the nation's gross domestic product "has grown by an average of over 7% and inflation has remained in the low single digits," the International Monetary Fund said last month. "Government revenues have more than doubled from 16% of GDP in 2009 to an estimated 36% of GDP in 2012, allowing the restoration of basic public services."
And as the nation returns from the brink of a crippled economy, Zimbabweans are hopeful.
"Whoever wins, the country needs to move forward," said Linda Mukusha, a Harare resident.