Zimbabwe opposition criticises voting delays amid historic election
Voter turnout is high in the first elections without long-standing leader former Robert Mugabe on the ballot.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader has said reported voting delays are a “deliberate attempt” to undermine his supporters in the country’s first election without former leader Robert Mugabe on the ballot.
The allegations by Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC), intensified concerns about management of the election and raised the prospect of a dispute over its outcome.
The voting turnout was high and, in a break from the past, peaceful.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former deputy president, has promised a credible vote that he hopes will bring international legitimacy and investment to this southern African country.
Mr Mugabe, 94, ruled Zimbabwe from independence in 1980 until his resignation in November under military pressure, and many people are anxious for change.
The opposition was concerned about delays at polling stations in urban areas, where support for the MDC has traditionally been strong, while the ruling Zanu-PF party has dominated many rural areas in past elections marred by violence and irregularities.
Mr Chamisa wrote on Twitter: “There seems to be a deliberate attempt to suppress and frustrate” urban voters through “unnecessary delays”.
He did acknowledge that there was a “good turnout”.
Long queues formed outside many polling stations in Harare, the capital, and elsewhere. Anyone still waiting as of the 7pm closing time could still vote, though opposition parties are concerned that their supporters could drift away if forced to wait for hours.
Some observers welcomed Zimbabwe’s freer political environment but cited worries 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.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, accused of engineering flawed election wins for Mr 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,” said Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the commission.
She said she was confident that voting at most of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations would be completed by closing time.
About 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election viewed by many as an opportunity to move beyond decades of political and economic paralysis.
A record of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties are participating. If no presidential candidate wins 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on September 8.
The main contenders are the 75-year-old Mr Mnangagwa, who took over after Mr Mugabe stepped down, and 40-year-old Mr 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 voting in the central city of Kwekwe, where bystanders were silent and grim-faced, Mr Mnangagwa said he was committed to a Zimbabwe in which people have the “freedom to express their views, negative or positive”.
In contrast, piercing whistles and cheers greeted Mr Chamisa as he voted outside Harare. He said he hoped voting in rural areas would be fair.
Despite Mr Mugabe’s troubled legacy, dozens of cheering Zimbabweans gathered outside the polling station in the capital where he voted. Struggling to walk, the 94-year-old raised his fist to acknowledge them. He had his finger inked and was assisted by his wife in the booth.
Mr Mugabe said Mr Chamisa was the only viable candidate and rejected Mr Mnangagwa and the ruling party, saying: “I cannot vote for those who have tormented me.”