Zimbabwe held special elections on Saturday for nine seats in Parliament after opposition lawmakers were removed from their positions and disqualified from running again.
The opposition called it an illegal push by the ruling ZANU-PF party to bolster its parliamentary majority and possibly change the constitution.
This may allow President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 81, who was re-elected for a second and final term in August amid international and regional criticism, to run for another term.
All nine opposition lawmakers from the Citizens Coalition for Change party that were removed were elected in the national vote in August.
But an official claiming to be the secretary-general of the party recalled them from their positions in the weeks after that election.
CCC leader Nelson Chamisa said the official, Sengezo Tshabangu, held no position with the party and his instructions should be ignored.
But Zimbabwean courts recognized Tshabangu's authority, ruled to remove the opposition MPs and declared them on Thursday ineligible to run.
“This is not an election. This is not democracy,” opposition deputy spokesperson Gift Ostallos Siziba told The Associated Press.
Another late-night court ruling Friday left the ZANU-PF candidate set to win one of the seats in the capital, Harare, uncontested.
The CCC said on the eve of the special elections that it had launched an appeal with the Supreme Court, demanding that eight of its candidates appear on the ballots.
It didn’t list a name for the Harare seat.
The main opposition party said the removal of its lawmakers is a brazen attempt by the ruling party to increase its control in Parliament and has accused ZANU-PF, which has been in power since the southern African country's independence in 1980, of using the courts to help it do that.
The CCC said ZANU-PF was using Tshabangu and the courts to “decimate” the opposition.
“The battle lines have been clearly drawn,” the CCC said Saturday in a statement on social media site X.
“The actions of the court officials who contributed to the demise of democracy in Zimbabwe will be recorded in the country’s history.”
ZANU-PF won 177 out of 280 parliamentary seats in the national election but needs another 10 seats to gain the two-thirds majority it requires to change the constitution.
That would allow it to remove term limits for presidents, among other things.
Saturday’s special elections are just the start.
Tshabangu has recalled dozens more opposition lawmakers, local councilors and mayors. More elections are due in the coming months.
Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said ZANU-PF is using institutions like the courts and the police force to suppress opposition and criticism.
The U.S. State Department said last week in the run-up to the special elections that it was placing visa restrictions on Zimbabwean individuals “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Zimbabwe.”
It said they had been involved in “excluding members of the political opposition from electoral processes,” but didn't name anyone.
ZANU-PF has denied any links to Tshabangu and his recall of opposition lawmakers, calling it an internal squabble in the CCC. The ruling party's spokesperson Christopher Mutsvangwa said ZANU-PF is not responsible for the “chaos and disorder” within the opposition.
Mnangagwa’s term is due to end in 2028 and some within his party have called for him to remain past the current two-term limit.
He came to power in 2017 following a coup that removed autocrat Robert Mugabe, who was Zimbabwe's leader for 37 years.