HARARE, Zimbabwe – With hope and pride, millions of Zimbabweans voted peacefully Monday in an election that many believe is their best chance to escape the toxic politics and dead-end economics of the era of Robert Mugabe, who wasn’t on the ballot for the first time in the nation’s nearly four-decade history.
But opposition activists used to the violence, intimidation and vote-tampering that marred elections under Mugabe called for vigilance against the same kind of skullduggery this time around. Western monitors noted some problems at polling stations, but said it wasn’t yet clear whether they reflected a deliberate effort to manipulate the elections.
“They may be peaceful, but we don’t know how credible they are,” said 51-year-old Classified Chivese, a voter who, like many Zimbabweans, is unemployed.
Zimbabwe’s political climate has opened up since 94-year-old Mugabe, who once said he would rule for life, resigned in November after a military takeover and ruling party move to impeach him. Throngs celebrated the removal of Mugabe, in power since independence from white minority rule in 1980, but many Zimbabweans view Monday’s election as an equally important milestone.
More than 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election featuring a record more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties vying for parliamentary seats. If no presidential candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Sept. 8.
The two main contenders were 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former deputy president and longtime enforcer for Mugabe who has reinvented himself as a candidate for change; and 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who became head of the main opposition party a few months ago after the death of its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
After polls closed at 7 p.m. and vote-counting began, Mnangagwa appealed to Zimbabweans to be patient and wait for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce results. The final, official tally is expected within five days.
“Today, Zimbabwe experienced a beautiful expression of freedom & democracy,” Mnangagwa tweeted. “No matter which way we voted, we are all brothers and sisters.”
Earlier, however, Chamisa said on Twitter that voting delays in urban areas, where his support is strong, were a “deliberate attempt” to undermine his election bid. The allegations by the head of the Movement for Democratic Change party intensified concerns about management of the election and the prospect of a dispute over its outcome.
The head of the European Union mission monitoring Zimbabwe’s elections said his team saw “huge differences” in the pace of voting at polling stations. Voters at one location waited less than an hour to cast their ballots while others at a nearby station waited more than half the day, Elmar Brok said.
“In some cases, it works very smoothly,” Brok said. “But in others, we see that it’s totally disorganized and that people become angry, that people leave.”
He noted a case of the ruling ZANU-PF party delivering 100 people by bus to vote in a district where they didn’t live. Observers have to check whether it was a single example or part of a pattern “which might have influence on the result of the elections,” Brok said.
The fact that Brok and other Western observers were even in Zimbabwe and free to operate wherever they liked reflected a new transparency after years of Mugabe banning outside monitors. Still, there were concerns 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.
Among opposition objections was that the ballots listed presidential candidates in two columns of 14 and nine names, with Mnangagwa at the top of the second column – a spot that would presumably make it easier for people to vote for him. Observers say the law requires a single column of names in alphabetical order.
Also, millions of Zimbabweans living abroad, including in neighboring South Africa, were barred from voting unless they traveled home to do so. The government said it did not have the resources to organize voting for expatriates, many of whom are believed to support the opposition.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, accused of manipulating election wins for 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,” Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the commission, said during voting Monday.
Chigumba also said police have been informed about two presidential candidates who might have violated the law by campaigning after the cutoff time. She didn’t name them, but they are likely to be Chamisa and Mnangagwa, both of whom issued public statements on Sunday.
Despite Mugabe’s troubled legacy, dozens of cheering Zimbabweans gathered outside the polling station in the capital where he voted. Struggling to walk, Mugabe raised his fist to acknowledge them. He made his way into the polling center, had his finger inked and was assisted by his wife into the booth.
On Sunday, Mugabe said Chamisa was the only viable candidate and rejected Mnangagwa and the ruling party, saying: “I cannot vote for those who have tormented me.”
Mnangagwa hopes an election viewed as credible will bring international legitimacy and investment to Zimbabwe, though a seriously flawed process could signal more stagnation. The president is himself the target of U.S. sanctions imposed on some government leaders and companies over human rights concerns during the Mugabe era.
Despite expectations that the elections could bring a better life, Zimbabwe remains plagued by the hopelessness of unemployment, cash shortages and moribund industries. Many problems are due to mismanagement exacerbated by the country’s old status as an international pariah.
“We need change because we have suffered a lot here,” said 65-year-old Mable Mafaro, a voter in Harare.
Another voter was exultant, comparing the election to the end of white minority rule.
“I’m so happy,” said 28-year-old Tapiwa Kahondo. “This is 1980 for Zimbabwe. We are so happy for today.”
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