Zimbabweans headed out to the polls with enthusiasm on Monday morning in one of the most peaceful elections in recent times, but it doesn’t mean everyone is playing clean.
Finding out when former president Robert Mugabe would be voting was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, but just before lunch time, and with a sombre look on his face, he arrived at the Mhofu Government Primary School in Highfield, with his wife Grace in tow. She must be happy to be in Harare and not in South Africa, where, at about the same time as she was voting, the court ruled that she’s not immune to prosecution for having assaulted a young woman in Johannesburg late last year, when she was still first lady.
Even though he’s 94 years old, it’s an election of firsts for Mugabe: the first time in 38 years that his face is not on the ballot paper (he admitted on Sunday that this was painful), but it’s also the first time that he would not be voting for Zanu-PF. Mugabe at a press conference on Sunday hinted that he would vote for opposition MDC presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa, at 40 years old, less than half his age.
Outside, as the couple made their way through the throngs of media and people, a crowd was chanting his nickname “Gushungo” and thanking him for his vote.
If Mugabe voted for Chamisa (he was coy to talk about his choice on voting day, perhaps because he didn’t want the government to cancel the rest of his security detail after they withdrew most soldiers from his protection following his Sunday press conference) it would not have been out-of-place in the upmarket Highfield, which has traditionally been an MDC stronghold.
Chamisa himself voted an hour later than scheduled, at 9.30am, at the Kuwadzana Primary School just west of Harare.
Apparently not one for queues, Chamisa received a hero’s welcome from supporters before being ushered straight into the small brick building to cast his vote.
In the time that Chamisa was exercising his democratic rights, the man he is up against, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was making his way from Harare home to Kwekwe in his chopper to cast his vote.
By lunchtime, some voters who said they tried to make their way to polling stations as soon as they could for the 7am opening, still they found themselves in queues of longer than three hours.
The streets of Harare were quiet in the morning and the atmosphere was relaxed as most people were at the polling stations. The hustle picked up after lunch, when some set off on their daily business. It’s a public holiday, so most people would be using the day to relax – while many would also use the time to sleep off their hangovers from last night’s drinking after treating this as a long weekend.
Much is different during this election. Zimbabweans say it’s the first time they had seen people walk around freely and without fear in party regalia on the day before an election.
Much has, however, remained the same, like skewed coverage by state media (only the Zanu-PF’s final rally was covered live on Saturday, and the state-owned Herald’s stories are still very one-sided, at best). There are also allegations that Zanu-PF was using intimidation tactics, especially in rural areas to get more votes.
Chamisa’s supporters have already been celebrating what they say would be his presidency, but there are a few hurdles.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission on Sunday reported him to the police because it said he violated the Electoral Act by having a press conference. The act forbids any campaigning the day before an election.
Chamisa’s supporters have pointed out that Mnangagwa himself might have transgressed this act by distributing a video clip late on Sunday responding to Mugabe’s hinted endorsement of Chamisa.
Speaking frankly, some close to his campaign said the MDC had not been rigorous enough in getting monitors in place at polling stations, and one said the party’s chief electoral officer, Jameson Timba, was just a little too relaxed on Sunday night.
The Election Situation Room, an alliance of 41 civil society organisations observing the elections, said on Monday morning that, apart from press conferences and video clips, party agents across the party political spectrum – the MDC and Zanu-PF in particular – ignored the rules by continuing their door-to-door campaigns on Sunday, as well as their distribution of party regalia.
There were also “reports of intimidation and harassment prior to the election. Many of these involve threats of removal of food aid and government projects if the voters do not vote for Zanu-PF”. Threats to candidates were also a grave concern.
The ESR said in their statement that the long queues could also be a source of tensions. “In many place people are being organised alphabetically instead of on a first come, first served basis, for ease of processing,” it said. Such over-efficiency isn’t always a good thing.
It also confirmed that it had received reports that observers and MDC party agents were denied entry into polling stations in a few places, but said the ZEC had been informed.
So far, many Zimbabweans are saying it’s the most “uneventful” election they have seen in recent times. Most also hope that it would remain this way. DM
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