Zimbabweans vote in large numbers
African Union observer says election has been ‘peaceful, orderly, fair and free’
Zimbabweans queue to cast their ballots in the country’s general elections in Harare. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters.
A ballot with images of all Zimbabwean presidential candidates is seen at a polling station in Domboshava, about 45 km north of Harare. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters.
Zimbabweans voted in large numbers today 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 and amid allegations of vote-rigging, it is hard to say whether Mr Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to oust 89-year-old Mr 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.
Mr 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 7pm local time but because of the high turnout officials said those still waiting in queues to vote would have until midnight.
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.
“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.”
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 Mr Mugabe or his 61-year-old challenger.
In Harare, the epicentre of support for Mr 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, Mr 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.