Zimbabweans queue to make their mark

Eager to vote, Zimbabweans began lining up before dawn on Saturday for elections that present President Robert Mugabe with the toughest political challenge of his 28 years in power. The opposition accuses Mugabe of plotting to steal the election.

Police presence at the polls on Saturday was heavy, and the house of a ruling Zanu-PF parliamentary candidate in the western suburbs of Bulawayo was bombed earlier in the day, shattering its windows.

Chief police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena confirmed the bombing, saying: “Early this morning a house in Emakhandeni ...
constituency was bombed. We have since retrieved explosive devices ... no arrests have been made as yet and no one was injured.”

Zimbabwean police said no one was injured in the incident and no arrests had been made.

Tensions had already started to rise on Friday, with soldiers and police in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers and water cannon patrolling through downtown Harare, the capital, and security chiefs warning against violence.

Contenders vote

Running against Mugabe are Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (55), who narrowly lost disputed 2002 elections, and former ruling-party loyalist and finance minister Simba Makoni (58). Makoni has shaken up Zimbabwe’s politics with his appeal to disillusioned citizens, threatening to take votes from both the opposition and the ruling party.

All three candidates voted early on Saturday.

Mugabe said on Saturday morning he would step down if defeated in the elections. The president, who cast his vote in his old home constituency of Highfield in Harare, said he had no need to steal a vote as he would win by fair means. Besides, he added, his conscience would never allow him to rest were he to cheat in the polls.

“We have never rejected any win by the MDC, be it in 1980, 1985, 1995, to this day. We are not in the habit of cheating,” said Mugabe while addressing a huge group of journalists after casting his vote.

He added: “We have a sense of honesty. I cannot sleep with conscience if I have cheated elections. We will win because of the evident support that we have from the people. This time round like the last time, we are going to win. I rate my chances high and we will succeed and will conquer.”

Mugabe ruled out any run-off in the election, saying that he was confident that his party would win comfortably in the first round of balloting as had been the case in the past.

Elsewhere in Harare, Tsvangirai and Makoni also predicted victory as they voted earlier in the morning.

“After a gruelling campaign we have now come to the end, but I want to assure you that the people’s victory is assured despite the regime’s attempts to subvert the people’s will through rigging machinery that has been unearthed,” Tsvangirai said after casting his vote at Avondale Primary School.

Commenting on the sabre-rattling by the military, Tsvangirai said: “I am not seeking the mandate of the security chiefs but of the people and I hope that all service chiefs and security personnel are constitutionally bound to observe the law. I hope that after I win, I’m going to engage the security chiefs as a process of stabilising our country.”

Makoni also told reporters he expected to win the polls against his former ally.

‘Large turnout’

Winding queues, some stretching for more than 200m, could be seen on Saturday at most polling stations in Harare and Bulawayo.

At one polling centre at a state school in Kuwadzana constituency in Harare, some enthusiastic voters said they had camped at the polling station from as early as 2am, a sign of the palpable excitement gripping Zimbabwe.

But voters also complained of the slow pace at which polling officers were processing voters, with what appeared to be MDC supporters starting to accuse the officers of deliberately delaying the process in a bid to deny them a chance to vote.

Presiding officials also said some voters were confused with the many ballot papers, despite the use of different colours meant to help voters distinguish ballots.

In southern Bulawayo, the second city, Moreblessing Ndlovu said he chose democracy over dictatorship. “The people of Zimbabwe have had enough of this dictatorship,” said Ndlovu, his bare feet reflecting his poverty. “Everyone here is hungry. They want to see a change,” he said, pointing a snaking line of about 200 people waiting to vote.

Some people got in line as early as midnight. “It’s a big day we’ve been waiting for. The people have been suffering,” said Marjorie Saba, a domestic worker.

At Mpopoma high school in Mpopoma suburb, voters complained when finding that there were three ballot boxes instead of four—the House of Assembly elections were postponed following the death of MDC Mutambara faction candidate Milton Gwetu earlier this month.

In Lobengula West, a queue for people fetching water from a municipal borehole was longer than the one at the polling station. Some suburbs in Bulawayo have gone for a week without water after council authorities grounded most of its fleet owing to non-delivery of fuel from the quasi-governmental National Oil Company of Zimbabwe.

Most stations opened after the 7am scheduled time and people complained the process was slow. But Noel Kututwa, head of the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said voting was going smoothly countrywide. “It looks like a large turnout so far, and there is some excitement in the air,” he said.

His group’s monitors reported a heavy police presence at polling stations, allowed under a belated presidential decree that breaks an agreement signed with the opposition. Some fear it could frighten away opposition voters.

Vote-rigging feared

Long queues were witnessed in Zimbabwe’s oldest city of Masvingo, about 400km south-east of Harare, where more than 200 000 registered voters were expected to cast their vote.

Masvingo, the most populous province in Zimbabwe, is an opposition stronghold. But with recent fears of vote rigging, voters had reason for concern. “Voting is peaceful, though our main fear is the looming rigging,” said Munashe Manenji, of Mucheke Old residential suburb.

In the Manicaland provincial capital of Mutare, voters started queuing at polling stations from 6am. Mutare is Zimbabwe’s third-largest city, about 270km east of Harare.

The pre-election zeal that surrounded the poll was dampened by lower-than-expected attendances at some Mutare polling stations. In Hobhouse, winding queues were moving slowly as polling agents were taking long in verifying voters’ names and identity documents.

Sakubva, one of Mutare’s most populous suburbs, had shorter queues. In Dangamvura, another high-density suburb, the situation was not much different.

An unconfirmed number of people were turned away for presenting the wrong identity documents at polling stations, such as expired passports or driver’s licences.

There are 9 000 polling stations for 5,9-million voters. Independent democracy watchdogs have complained of too few stations in urban opposition strongholds and said they have seen the names of dead of fictitious people on the official voting list, presenting an opportunity for fraud.

Zimbabweans are voting in a single day for the first time for a new president, 210 legislators, 60 senators and 1 600 local councillors. Polls are scheduled to close at 7pm local time and preliminary results are expected by Monday.

United States State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said on Friday: “There are a lot of big question marks hanging over this election in terms of the integrity of the electoral process.”

On Friday night, monitors from the 14-nation Southern African Development Community said they had observed “a number of matters of concern”, which they did not identify. Zimbabwe has barred observers travelling from the US and the European Union, but the US State Department said it had 10 people from its embassy in Harare monitoring the elections.

Tsvangirai on Friday urged supporters to stay at polling stations until counting began, to help prevent rigging, and he appealed to public servants not to participate in fraud.

Collapse

The economic collapse of what was once the region’s breadbasket has been a central campaign issue, with the opposition accusing Mugabe of misrule and dictatorship. Mugabe, appealing to national pride, blames the West and charges his opponents are stooges of former colonial ruler Britain.

Mugabe told a final rally on Friday that Saturday’s vote would show Zimbabweans’ opposition to colonialism. “Zimbabweans are making a statement against the meddling British establishment,” he said. He called for discipline at the polls despite “provocation from outsiders who are already claiming the elections are not free and fair”.

The president blames Britain and Western sanctions for the ruin of the Southern African country that once exported food, tobacco and minerals. Today, Zimbabweans struggle to survive inflation in excess of 100 000%, crippling shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine.

The British charity Save the Children said on Friday the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has more than doubled from 59 per 1 000 births in 1989 to 123 per 1 000 in 2004.

One-third of Zimbabwe’s population, an estimated five million people, are political and economic refugees. With no provisions for overseas voting, some were participating in a mock online election.

In London, the Zimbabwe Vigil group was holding elections in front of the Zimbabwean embassy for frustrated refugees, and another mock election was held in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Some Zimbabweans even “voted” by SMS.

Mock polling stations were set up in Soweto, Jourbert Park, Hillbrow Community Hall, Berea and Yeoville Community Hall in Johannesburg, while in Pretoria, such structures were set up in Marabastad.

“So far we have received an overwhelming response from Zimbabwean citizens based in Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg respectively,” said Simon Mudekwa, coordinator of the mock election and president of the Zimbabwe Revolutionary Youth Movement.

“The vote counting will start late in the evening today [Saturday],” said Mudekwa.—Sapa-AP, Reuters, ZimOnline, CAJ News

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