Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe cast his vote at a polling station in Harare. (AP: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
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Counting has begun in Zimbabwe in the first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed vote that could welcome a pariah state back into the international fold and spark an economic recovery.
- The election frontrunners are President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa
- Zimbabweans are also electing 210 members of parliament and more than 9,000 councillors
- About 5.5 million people registered to vote
The election is a two-horse race between 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, and 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
Zimbabwe’s electoral commission said it will announce final results within five days.
Mr Mnangagwa is viewed as the frontrunner, though the latest opinion polls showed a tight race.
Zimbabweans are also electing 210 members of parliament and more than 9,000 councillors.
Opposition parties were concerned that their supporters could drift away if forced to wait for hours, in the open and without food or drink. (AP: Bram Janssen)
The election winner faces the task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation that caused a crisis in a country that once had one of Africa’s most promising economies.
A credible vote is essential if Zimbabwe is to exit painful sanctions and secure the donor funding and investment needed to stem chronic cash shortages.
Mr Chamisa said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was impeding voting in urban areas where he enjoys strong support, but gave no evidence to back the claim.
“The people’s will [is] being negated & undetermined due to these deliberate and unnecessary delays,” he said in a tweet.
Observers say this election could tilt the country toward recovery after years of economic collapse and repression. (AP: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
The ZEC was not immediately available to comment. It has denied Chamisa’s previous allegations of bias.
Several international observers said the voting process had been slow at some stations, but it did not appear to them to be intentional.
EU chief observer Elmar Brok said many voters, particularly young women, left voting queues in frustration at long delays.
Mr Chamisa said his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would win if there was no “ballot mischief”, making it likely he will challenge the outcome if Mr Mnangagwa prevails.
A contested result is likely to lead to street protests and possible violence.
If no presidential candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote, a runoff will be held on September 8.
About 5.5 million people registered to vote. (AP: Jerome Delay)
About 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election viewed by many as an opportunity to move beyond decades of political and economic paralysis.
A record of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties were participating.
“It is exciting to see so many Zimbabweans casting ballots,” said former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s observer mission.
“However the public’s faith in the secrecy of the ballot is essential for the credibility of the process. We urge the authorities to do everything possible to ensure the secrecy of today’s vote.”
Mr Mnangagwa has made a big effort to win over foreign opinion; hosting Western ambassadors, courting investors and patching up relations with white commercial farmers who were violently evicted from their farms under Mr Mugabe.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is one of the election frontrunners. (AP: Jerome Delay)
Some observers welcome Zimbabwe’s freer political environment but cite worries about bias in state media, a lack of transparency in ballot printing and reports of intimidation by pro-government traditional leaders who are supposed to stay neutral.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, accused of engineering flawed election wins for Mr Mugabe in the past, has said this vote will be free and fair.
“We need peace and we need everyone to be comfortable to go out and exercise their right to vote without fear,” said Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
She said she was confident that voting at most of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations would be completed by the closing time.
Mixed reaction as Mugabe casts vote
Video: Opposition parties say Zimbabwe's election rigged
Mr Mugabe, 94, led the war for independence and has dominated the country’s politics since 1980.
But he has lived in obscurity since he stepped down under military pressure in November.
He emerged on the eve of the election to announce he would vote for the opposition, surprising Mr Mnangagwa who accused him of striking a deal with Mr Chamisa.
Mr Mugabe made no comment to reporters as he cast his ballot around lunchtime accompanied by his wife, Grace.
A huge crowd gathered outside, some cheering, many booing.
Mr Mnangagwa, a former intelligence chief, denied Mr Mugabe’s claim that the vote would not be free since it was being run by a “military government”.
“I can assure you that this country is enjoying democratic space which has never been experienced before,” Mr Mnangagwa told public television after voting.
Elections under Mr Mugabe were often marred by intimidation, rigging and violence, but the consensus is the build-up to this vote has been better than before, although Mr Chamisa complained about a flawed voters’ roll and opaque ballot paper printing.
Mr Mugabe said Mr Chamisa was the only viable candidate and rejected Mr Mnangagwa and the ruling party. (AP: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
“Victory is certain, the people have spoken,” Mr Chamisa said after casting his ballot in Harare as a cheering crowd chanted: “President! President! The president is here!”
“I have no doubt that by end of day today we should be very clear as to an emphatic voice for change.”
Fabian Matsika, a security guard in Harare, said: “I’ll vote for Chamisa because it is a vote for change, it is a vote for the youth. Tomorrow we will have a new president.”
Inside polling stations, voters were given three ballot papers: one for their presidential pick, another for member of parliament and a third for local councillor.
Polling officers helped voters put each ballot paper in the right box.
“We need change because we have suffered a lot here,” 65-year-old Mable Mafaro said while voting in Harare.
“We have suffered a lot. That’s all.”