Zimbabweans voted Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai for the third time in the nation’s 33-year history amid hopes that this time, the results will be different.
Dressed in winter coats, scarves and hats on an especially cold Election Day, Zimbabweans lined up at polling stations across the country Wednesday to cast their ballots in a hotly contested election that is being closely watched – if not monitored – by the international community.
In the first elections since the violently disputed 2008 polls, Zimbabweans were once again choosing between two familiar political figures for the post of president of this southern African nation of over 13 million people.
At 89, President Robert Mugabe is seeking to extend his 33-year grip on power while his main challenger, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 61, has vowed to push Africa’s oldest leader into retirement.
More than 6 million people registered for the 2013 presidential, parliamentary and local council elections amid widespread fears of vote rigging in a nation that’s no stranger to post-electoral crises.
While official turnout figures have not yet been released, voting was proceeding at a brisk pace at polling stations in and around the capital, according to FRANCE 24 correspondents reporting from Harare.
“Voting is in full swing in Zimbabwe and things appear to be going smoothly,” said FRANCE 24’s Ayesha Ismail shortly after polls opened. “There were early reports of small towns experiencing logistical problems, leading to long queues. But that has not stopped voters. Some people say this is the most important election since 1980 [when the country gained its independence from Britain]. It’s probably also the election under the most scrutiny,” Ismail added.
Election officials reported a high turnout across the country and voting was extended at several polling stations to enable those in lines to cast their ballots.
In an initial assessment, 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.
Mugabe vows to ‘surrender’ if he loses
Mugabe, the longtime leader of the ZANU-PF party, and Tsvangirai have been in an uneasy, power-sharing government, which has succeeded in stabilising an economy in freefall and ending hyperinflation. But the alliance has been fraught with mutual suspicions that have only risen in the runup to Wednesday’s vote.
A closer look at Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai
In a letter published earlier this week in the domestic News Day newspaper and the Washington Post, Tsvangirai accused Mugabe of “attempting to steal Zimbabwe’s most important election”.
The former trade union leader went on to note that, “Mugabe is the world’s oldest leader and one of its longest-ruling dictators. He is fixing this election in a more sophisticated fashion than previous ZANU-PF campaigns of beatings, killings and intimidation.”
Mugabe however has denied the allegations. At a rare press briefing in the capital of Harare on the eve of the elections, the Zimbabwean president insisted that, “We have done no cheating.”
The incumbent president also vowed to step down if he loses the election. “If you lose, you must surrender,” said Mugabe, who has been in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.
A new constitution, an alliance that held
But while the candidates and their discourses sound familiar, there have been notable changes in this southern African nation over the past five years.
Defying the international community’s worst fears, the power-sharing alliance held together for an entire term and MDC officials are quick to take credit for Zimbabwe’s relative economic revival over the past few years.
The 2013 campaign has been marked by serious allegations of rigging registration lists and complaints that ZANU-PF had pushed ahead with the election date, leaving the MDC with little preparation time. But there were no violent incidents on the campaign trail.
‘ZANU doesn’t lose elections’
Despite the MDC’s message of change, many analysts believe Wednesday’s vote may not bring meaningful change to Zimbabwe.
Mugabe remains popular in the rural areas and in the absence of reliable opinion polls, it is hard to predict if Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to unseat Mugabe.
The biggest question looming over Wednesday’s vote is whether the loser will accept the results of the vote.
Given the problems that have dogged the process, many analysts and ordinary Zimbabweans expect a fraught post-election period that could see contestations in the courts and possibly trouble on the streets.
Date created : 2013-07-31