Zimbabweans voted in large numbers on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting veteran President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has vowed to push Africa's oldest leader into retirement after 33 years in power. By Cris Chinaka.
With no reliable opinion polls and amid allegations of vote-rigging, it is hard to say whether Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to oust 89-year-old Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.
In an initial assessment of the poll, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president heading an African Union observer team, said he thought the process had been “peaceful, orderly and free and fair”.
“My hope is that this will be what the report will be from all polling stations throughout the country,” he told reporters.
Both sides are forecasting landslide wins. In a country with a history of election violence the big question is whether the loser will accept the result of a poll whose run-up was dogged by logistical problems and reports of intimidation.
Mugabe, who rejects past and present charges from critics of vote-fixing and intimidation by his ZANU-PF party supporters, has said he will concede if defeated.
“I’m sure people will vote freely and fairly,” he told reporters after casting his ballot in a school in Harare’s Highfields township. “There’s no pressure being exerted on anyone.”
Polls closed at 1700 GMT, after a day that started with long queues of people braving unseasonably cold weather to stand in line from well before dawn.
At one polling station in the eastern province of Manicaland, a key swing region, the queue of voters, many wrapped up in blankets, stretched for a kilometre (half a mile).
“I got up at 4:00 but still couldn’t get the first position in the line,” said sawmill worker Clifford Chasakara. “My fingers are numb but I’m sure I can mark the ballot all the same. I’m determined to vote and have my vote counted.”
“WAY TO CHANGE”
The Election Commission said nationwide turnout was high, but with no breakdown between urban and rural areas it is impossible to say whether this will benefit Mugabe or his 61-year-old challenger.
In Harare, the epicentre of support for Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, the mood was upbeat.
“We are here to vote and I’m convinced Harare will lead the way to change,” John Phiri, a house cleaner in his 30s, said in a polling station in the upmarket Mount Pleasant suburb.
Casting his vote at a Harare high school, Tsvangirai said he expected to win “quite resoundingly”.
Around 6.4 million people, or half the population, are registered to vote. Results are expected well within a five-day deadline intended to prevent a repeat of problems seen in the last election in 2008, when big delays led to serious violence.
The threat of unrest remains at the back of people’s minds but the atmosphere has been markedly lighter than five years ago, with both party leaders preaching peace and tolerance.
The pair met at State House late on Tuesday in the presence of Obasanjo, who described the encounter – unusual on an election eve – as a “briefing”.
Asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether he and ZANU-PF would accept defeat, Mugabe was unequivocal: “You either win or lose. If you lose, you must surrender.”
His comments were in marked contrast to the acrimony of what he described as an “energy-sapping” campaign, and may help to ease fears about a repeat of the turmoil that broke out in 2008 after he lost the first round of voting.
Around 200 Tsvangirai supporters were killed then before South Africa brokered a power-sharing deal that stopped the bloodshed and stabilised the economy, establishing a unity government criticised as fractious and dysfunctional.
Western observers have been barred from the elections, leaving the task of independent oversight to 500 regional and 7,000 domestic monitors.
Their verdict is crucial to the future of Zimbabwe’s economy, which is still struggling with the aftermath of a decade-long slump and hyperinflation that ended in 2009 when the worthless Zimbabwe dollar was scrapped.
The United States, which has sanctions in place against Mugabe, has questioned the credibility of the poll, pointing to a lack of transparency in its organisation and pro-Mugabe bias in the state media and partisan security forces.
However, if the vote receives broad approval, there is a chance Western sanctions may be eased, allowing Harare to normalise relations with the IMF and World Bank and access the huge investment needed to rebuild its dilapidated economy.
It would also spark a rush to exploit Zimbabwe’s rich reserves of minerals such as chrome, coal, platinum and gold.
Tsvangirai urged African monitors not to give the vote the thumbs-up simply because they do not witness bloodshed.
“Mugabe is the world’s oldest leader and one of its longest-ruling dictators. He is fixing this election in a more sophisticated fashion than previous ZANU-PF campaigns of beatings, killings and intimidation,” he wrote in an editorial in the Washington Post. DM
Photo: Zimbabweans wait to cast their vote in Mbare township outside Harare July 31, 2013. Zimbabweans voted in large numbers on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting veteran President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has vowed to push Africa’s oldest leader into retirement after 33 years in power. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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