By Cris Chinaka
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.
With no reliable opinion polls, it is hard to say whether 61-year-old Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to unseat 89-year-old Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.
Both sides are forecasting landslide wins.
But, in a country with a history of election violence, the big question is whether the loser will accept the result of a poll dogged by logistical problems and allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation. Mugabe, who rejects past and present charges of vote-fixing, has said he will concede if defeated.
Polls opened on time at 0500 GMT, with long queues of people braving unseasonably cold weather to stand in line from well before dawn.
At one polling station in the western province of Manicaland, a key swing region, the queue of voters, many wrapped up in blankets, stretched for a kilometre (0.6 miles).
“I got up at 4 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.”
In Harare, the epicentre of Tsvangirai support, the mood was excited and upbeat. A large turnout, especially in cities, is likely to benefit Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, analysts say.
“We are here to vote and I’m convinced Harare will lead the way to change,” John Phiri, a domestic worker in his 30s, said in a polling station in the upmarket Mount Pleasant suburb.
Casting his vote at a high school in Harare, Tsvangirai, said he expected to win “quite resoundingly.”
Accompanied by his wife and children, he told reporters he was moved by the sight of the long line of voters.
Results are expected well within the five-day legal limit. Around 6.4 million people, or half the population, are registered to vote.
Asked on the eve of the polls if he and his ZANU-PF party would accept defeat, Mugabe was unequivocal: “If you go into a process and join a competition where there are only two outcomes, win or lose, you can’t be both. You either win or lose. If you lose, you must surrender.”
An MDC spokesman said the party was prepared only to accept the results if the poll was “free and fair”.
The United States, which has sanctions in place against Mugabe, has already questioned the credibility of the poll, pointing to lack of transparency in its organisation and pro-Mugabe bias in the state media and partisan security forces.
Mugabe’s comments were in marked contrast to the acrimony of what he described as an “energy-sapping” campaign. They may help to ease fears of a repeat of the violence that broke out after he lost the first round of the previous election in 2008.
Around 200 Tsvangirai supporters were killed in that unrest before South Africa brokered a power-sharing deal that stopped the bloodshed and stabilised the economy, but established 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.
Thabani Nyoni, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the leading domestic monitoring agency, said the early vote appeared to be running without too many problems.
“There are some concerns around long queues, but generally, it’s smooth,” he said.
The monitors’ 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.
If the poll 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 amounts of investment needed to rebuild its dilapidated economy.
Despite this, Tsvangirai urged African monitors not to give the vote the thumbs-up simply because they do not witness bloodshed this time.
“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.
In an interview with ITV broadcast on the eve of the election, Mugabe said his government had “never ever rigged elections” and he said he had no regrets about his 33 years in power.