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29 Mar 2008 09:39
Zimbabweans began voting on Saturday in the most crucial election since independence from Britain in 1980, with veteran President Robert Mugabe facing the biggest challenge of his 28-year rule.
Voters are choosing a new president, members of the House of Assembly and councillors.
Some voters slept at the polling stations while others began queuing before dawn.
Voting began just after 7am local time and was scheduled to end 12 hours later.
“I can’t say Zimbabweans are cowards or that they are cautious; they are peace-loving people, but if Mugabe steals the election there will surely be trouble in this country,” red-eyed Leo Kariwo said as he waited to vote in Harare’s low-income Mufakose township.
‘I’ve done my duty’
A queue of about 200m had formed outside a polling station in Mabelreign suburb in the capital, Harare, early on Saturday morning.
There were reports of some confusion over the colour coding of the ballot boxes.
The country’s election commission has promised that anyone already in the queue before the scheduled close of polls at 7pm (5pm GMT) will be allowed to vote.
With the once-prosperous nation’s economy in ruins, former guerrilla leader Mugabe must defeat a formidable two-pronged attack from veteran opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling-party defector Simba Makoni.
The latter said he was confident of ousting his old boss after he voted at the Mandara shopping centre in eastern Harare. “I feel good. I voted for the best candidate; I voted for Simba Makoni,” he said.
Makoni, who has previously predicted that he would win 72% of the votes, again struck a bullish note, saying his chances “are very good” and that his final tally should be “more than” his initial prediction.
However, he complained that the polling station where he voted had opened about 20 minutes late. “In the first half-an-hour, I doubt if more than 10 people managed to cast their votes,” he said.
‘Things are so bad’
Zimbabwe, once a regional breadbasket, now suffers the world’s worst inflation at more than 100Â 000%, a rampant HIV/Aids epidemic that has contributed to a radical reduction in life expectancy, a virtually worthless currency and chronic shortages of food and fuel.
“I want to vote because things are so bad, and maybe this election will help change that,” said a 35-year-old security guard who had left his post at a shopping mall and walked two hours to his township to vote. He declined to be named or say who he would be voting for, for fear of intimidation.
Few analysts are prepared to count Mugabe out. They say he has maintained a tight grip on power through a combination of ruthless security crackdowns, intimidation of ruling-party rivals and an elaborate patronage system. A split opposition may also favour Mugabe.
Supporters both inside the country and elsewhere in Africa still revere him as the last of the liberation heroes.
Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who has long posed the greatest threat to Mugabe, and former finance minister Makoni say the economic catastrophe will not end unless the veteran leader is replaced.
But Zimbabwe’s powerful security forces have thrown their backing behind Mugabe, stoking accusations that he will use his incumbent power to rig victory.
The state-owned Herald newspaper reported on Friday that an opinion poll showed Mugabe would win up to 57% of the vote, which analysts saw as a way of preparing the population for his victory. The poll was conducted by a university lecturer seen as sympathetic to the government.
Tsvangirai and Makoni have accused Mugabe of planning to declare victory with almost 60% of the vote after a fraudulent count.
“At this polling station the turnout looks very high. The proceedings are very orderly. It looks like we will have a very good election day and the weather is very favourable,” Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairperson George Chiweshe told reporters at the David Livingstone primary school, close to Mugabe’s official residence.
Mugabe blames the economic collapse on sanctions by former colonial power Britain and other Western nations. “This is a vote against the British. The fight is not against the MDC ... the MDC is just a puppet, a mouthpiece of the British,” he said in one of his last rallies on Friday.
If no candidate wins more than 51% of the vote on Saturday, the election will go into a second round, in which the two opposition parties would likely unite. Critics say Mugabe will do his utmost, including rigging, to avoid this happening.
“In previous years only the old voted,” said hairdresser Melinda Chapinduka (21) at a polling station in a tent in Chitungwiza, a town just south of Harare.
“The young people were not really interested because they had no real concerns. Now things are hard for us. Most of us are unemployed and our parents cannot support us because they have younger children [our siblings] to send to school.”
‘I will be patient’
Long and winding queues started forming outside polling stations in the Makokoba parliamentary constituency as early as 6am.
Makokoba is likely to be tightly contested by MDC-Tsvangirai vice-president Thokozani Khuphe; Welshman Ncube, secretary of the rival MDC faction; and Zimbabwe Defence Industries boss Tshinga Dube, also representing the MDC.
Voters waited patiently at McDonald Hall, Sobukhazi High School, Lobengula Primary School and Barbourfields Pre-School for the polling stations to open.
At Barbourfields Pre-School just behind Mpilo Hospital, voters had to wait for more than 30 minutes before they were allowed to make their mark.
“I was among the first people to get here hoping that voting will start on time,” said Elphas Dube. “But I will be patient enough because I believe my vote is crucial, we need change.” He added: The polling officers are also very slow.”
The voting process requires four ballot boxes to be completed, and some voters were worried that the process was too cumbersome.
In the Mpopoma-Pelandaba constituency, voting in the House of Assembly election was suspended following the death of Milton Gwetu, a candidate for the Arthur Mutambara-led MDC faction.—Reuters, Sapa-dpa, AFP, CAJ News
Gertrude Muzanenhamo (36), mother of three
“My biggest concern is education. We are paying money but our children are not learning because teachers are always on strike. People are dying in hospitals and funeral expenses are very high, how do you expect us to survive? Shop shelves are empty. If we vote things might get back to normal,” she said, adding that she had joined the queue to vote at 3.30am (1.30am GMT).
Leo Kariwo, a voter who slept outside a polling station
“I can’t say Zimbabweans are cowards or that they are cautious, they are peace-loving people, but if Mugabe steals the election there will surely be trouble in this country.”
Samuel Furutsa, a voter in Harare’s Mufakose township
“They brought in armoured vehicles and water tanks and lots of police officers yesterday. Tell us ... what is that supposed to mean? That is intimidation but we will not be cowed, we have nothing to lose my friend but we are hungry, I tell you.”
Sharon Kabaira, a hairdresser in Kambuzuma township
“I am really worried by the fact that we are now paying rentals in foreign currency. I want to vote to make sure that when I vote we will be able to pay rentals in our local currency and that the new leaders will reduce inflation. The problem in this country is that there very few people who have the means. It should not be like that, wealth should be evenly distributed.”
Christopher Mukwatamari, an unemployed youth
“Life is difficult, so I expect my vote to help bring change.”
Nadia Marabini, a white Zimbabwean at a polling station
“A new government, that’s what I need. What we need is an intelligent, well-managed government that will satisfy the needs of Zimbabweans of all walks of life.”
Emma Dodzo, an elderly woman huddling under a blanket with three other women
“We have been here since 11pm last night. We want to vote early, because there could be massive turnout, as you can see.”
George Chiweshe, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairperson
“At this polling station the turnout looks very high. The proceedings are very orderly. It looks like we will have a very good election day and the weather is very favourable.”
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