One of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders has threatened to boycott this month’s general election after claiming that ballot papers have been rigged to favour President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Nelson Chamisa, one of Mr Mnangagwa’s challengers in the July 30 vote, demanded a halt to printing the papers on Wednesday, warning that “we will not have an election without a ballot paper that has been agreed upon”.

The poll will be the first election in the southern African nation without Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years before he was ousted by the military last year.

Mr Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mr Mugabe, has promised that the election will be free and fair. His ruling Zanu-PF has a history of rigging votes and intimidating the opposition but this year Mr Mnangagwa has invited international election observers, including a team from the EU.

A fair election is seen as critical to unlocking badly needed international investment for Zimbabwe’s economy, which endured years of isolation under Mr Mugabe and is buckling under a severe cash shortage. Mr Mnangagwa is also seeking legitimacy after last year’s takeover.

But tension has risen in recent weeks. Mr Mnangagwa narrowly escaped an explosion at a campaign rally that he blamed on internal enemies in Zanu-PF still loyal to Mr Mugabe, while Mr Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change has accused the country’s election commission of failing to make a final voters’ roll available. It has also raised concerns of military interference in the poll.

“We’d rather be in a grave or a prison cell” than continue the elections under present conditions, said Mr Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer, who became leader of the MDC after the death this year of Morgan Tsvangirai, Mr Mugabe’s greatest political foe. The MDC is leading an alliance of seven opposition parties into the election.

“This is a political crisis,” Mr Chamisa said. “We will not repeat the mistakes of 2013,” he added, referring to the last election, in which rigging was rife.

Zimbabwe’s election commission has denied Mr Chamisa’s claims and defended the ballot paper. The design features Mr Mnangagwa at the top, despite being 15th in the alphabetical candidate list, by splitting the paper into two columns of 14 presidential contenders on the left hand side and nine on the right.

The commission has admitted in the past that at least 15 per cent of its staff were former members of the army and intelligence services. Human Rights Watch said the body had “not demonstrated independence or impartiality” and called on Mr Mnangagwa to remove military influence on politics.

Zimbabwe’s army says it will uphold the constitution during the election. But it has not said whether it would accept an opposition party in power instead of Zanu-PF, the former liberation movement. An army spokesperson denied on Wednesday that its soldiers had been sent to rural areas to intimidate voters into backing Zanu-PF.

According to polling released last month by Afrobarometer, 42 per cent of Zimbabweans plan to vote for Mr Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF, against 31 per cent for Mr Chamisa and the MDC, implying the presidential vote may go to a runoff in September. The intentions of over a quarter of voters remain unknown.

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