Millions of people are voting in Zimbabwe’s first election since the removal of its former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed poll that will determine the former British colony’s future for decades.
Long lines of voters formed outside polling stations across the country when they opened at 7am. Turn-out appeared extremely high. By early afternoon, polling officials in Harare and Norton, a town 25 miles from the capital, were reporting that between 75 and 85% of registered voters had cast their ballots.
“I am very optimistic this morning. This election is free. Things will get better now,” said Tinashe Musuwo, 20, as he cast his vote at Kuwadzana primary school on the outskirts of Harare, an opposition stronghold.
The two main candidates could not be more different. , the , was a longtime Mugabe aide and is head of the ruling Zanu-PF.
, who leads the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor whose only experience of power was a stint as a minister in a coalition government several years ago.
The two represent dramatically different ideologies and political styles, as well as generations.
Almost four decades of rule by the 94-year-old Mugabe has left Zimbabwe with a shattered economy, soaring unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure.
Nyari Musabeyana, a 30-year-old hairdresser in Kuwadzana, said she had got up early to vote for change. “We wish things to be OK in our village. We have no jobs, no cash, no economy. It is the fault of the past government.”
Polls give Mnangagwa, a dour former spy chief known as “the Crocodile” for his reputation for ruthless cunning, a slim lead over Chamisa, a brilliant if sometimes wayward orator.
Support for Zanu-PF has historically been strongest in rural areas, particularly its Mashonaland heartland.
“The story of our country is the story of this party. They have always done a lot for the people. Nelson Chamisa is a young guy. This country needs someone mature,” said Daniel Chiwesengwa, a 74-year-old retired municipal officer who voted at a remote polling station 25 miles from Harare.
If no candidate wins more than half the votes there will be a runoff in five weeks, though analysts believe this scenario is unlikely. A further possibility is negotiations to form some kind of coalition government if results are very close.
The campaign has been peaceful, unlike previous polls that have been marked by systematic intimidation and violence. The MDC has repeatedly claimed that it has been hindered by a flawed electoral roll, ballot paper malpractice, voter intimidation, bias in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and free food handed out by the ruling party.
Diplomats in Harare say the “playing field has not been level”.
There are also widespread fears among opposition activists and supporters that the government or the powerful military will refuse to cede power if defeated. “If we are robbed, we will go to the streets,” said Edmore, a 52-year-old MDC supporter in Kuwadzana.
Chamisa has said “chaos” would result if the MDC were unjustly denied victory.
“This is a great moment for Zimbabwe. The people have spoken. I know we are winning. I know we have won,” he told reporters on Monday as he voted on the outskirts of Harare. But he added that there had been an attempt to “suppress and frustrate” the vote in urban areas, where MDC party has strong support.
Mnangagwa has stressed foreign investment and “unity” during campaigning.
On Monday, he urged Zimbabweans to be peaceful, tweeting: “We are one people, with one dream and one destiny. We will sink or swim together.”
Zimbabwe’s rulers know that a fraudulent poll would block the country’s reintegration into the international community and deny them the huge bailout package needed to avoid economic meltdown.
Hundreds of international observers have been accredited, and more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties are participating.
For the first time since Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980 after a brutal guerilla war against a white supremacist regime, Mugabe is not on the ballot paper. In an astonishing intervention on Sunday, he said he would not vote for his former party, Zanu-PF, or the current president.
In his first major statement since being ousted last November, Mugabe told reporters in Harare he would be voting for the the MDC and Chamisa. “I cannot vote for the party or those in power who caused me to be in this condition. I cannot vote for them, I can’t,” Mugabe said at a hastily called, chaotic press conference in the garden of his sprawling home.
A rally on Saturday was supposedly the climax of the Zanu-PF campaign – but it cannot have reassured party strategists. Even with the considerable organisational power of the party fully deployed, the stadium was far from full, applause was desultory, and hundreds were pouring through the exits before the president’s speech was over.
Chamisa has addressed a total of 83 largely energetic and noisy rallies, building a powerful momentum.
“This is a critical moment in Zimbabwe’s democratic journey,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian president and a leader of one of the international observer missions.
“The elections today provide an opportunity to break with the past,” Sirleaf said at a polling station in a school in Harare. “The lines and voter enthusiasm we are seeing this morning must be matched by an accurate count and their choice must be honoured.”