HARARE: Crisis-weary Zimbabweans were voting on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election dominated by veteran President Robert Mugabe’s bid to extend his 33-year rule and suspicions of vote rigging.
The 89-year-old firebrand, Africa’s oldest leader, is running for office for the seventh and perhaps final time, after a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections.
But on the eve of the vote, Mugabe vowed to step down if he lost and claimed the army—long the bulwark of his rule—would also respect a victory for Morgan Tsvangirai, his perennial rival and reluctant partner in an uneasy coalition for the past four years.
“If you lose you must surrender,” the 89-year-old said, insisting: “We have done no cheating.”
The United States however, voiced concern about the way the vote would be run and Tsvangirai, who was forced out of the race in 2008 after 200 of his supporters were killed, told CNN he took Mugabe’s promise “with a pinch of salt.”
Voters, some wrapped in blankets on a cold winter morning, started queuing at least four hours before polling stations opened and voting appeared to be brisk in many urban areas, which have traditionally recorded strong support for Tsvangirai.
“I am happy to have cast my vote. I just want an end to the problems in our country,” said 66-year-old Ellen Zhakata as she voted in a Harare township.
“All my children are outside the country because of the economic troubles here. I am so lonely. How I wish they could be working here.”
Millions of Zimbabwean were forced to migrate to find work elsewhere after an economic crisis which was exacerbated by the violence-marred 2008 elections.
While this year’s campaign has seen little of the bloodshed of 2008, Tsvangirai, a 61-year-old former trade union leader, has raised alarm bells about fraud.
His Movement for Democratic Change handed what it claimed was documentary evidence of plans to rig the election to observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The dossier, which an SADC observer said raised serious questions, listed examples of duplicate or questionable voters gleaned from a initial examination of the electoral roll.
In June, the non-governmental Research and Advocacy Unit said after examining an incomplete roll that it included a million dead voters or emigres, as well as over 100,000 people who were more than 100 years old.
“We have seen a lot of duplicate names in the roll, where you see somebody is registered twice, same date of birth, same physical address but with a slight difference in their ID number,” junior minister Jameson Timba said.