Opposition leaders in Tanzania have accused authorities of stuffing ballot boxes to ensure victory for the ruling party in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections.

Despite sporadic violence in the run-up to the poll, tens of millions of people filed into polling stations without incident on Wednesday to cast their votes.

Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), said there were reports of fraud from constituencies across Tanzania, and party workers had found thousands of ballot papers and large numbers of returning officers’ statements of results that appeared to have been filled in before the vote. One bag was seized when it fell off a lorry.

“It was not an election, and the people of Tanzania will pay the price. The international community should not recognise this election or the legitimacy of the government,” Kabwe told the Guardian.

Tundu Lissu, the principal opposition candidate, issued a statement alleging “widespread irregularities in the form of preventing our polling agents from accessing polling stations” and “stuffed ballot boxes seized” in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital. “If this continues, mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election,” Lissu said.

John Magufuli, one of Africa’s most controversial leaders, is seeking a second term as president. His brand of populist politics and promises of economic development have gained him a solid support base, especially in Tanzania’s vast rural areas. But the 60-year-old has been accused of mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and repression of dissent.

International campaign groups have raised concerns about media freedoms in Tanzania. Twitter reported that it had seen “some blocking and throttling” of its service before the election. “Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful and violate basic human rights,” the company said.

There were also reports of disruption to WhatsApp, Instagram and Google, and efforts to block the use of VPN services too.

The government has denied clamping down on critics, and its spokesman Hassan Abbasi said the elections were held under the supervision of the national electoral commission (NEC), which is supposed to be impartial.

The opposition claims the NEC has systematically supported Magafuli and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM), which is sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-ruling party, by disqualifying its candidates or ordering them to pause campaigning.

At least nine people were reported to have been shot dead by police in semi-autonomous Zanzibar on the eve of the polls.

There are fears that Magafuli will win sufficient support in parliamentary elections on the mainland and in Zanzibar to allow the two-term limit to be lifted, raising the possibility of him remaining in power for decades.

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