Harare - Crisis-weary Zimbabweans flocked to cast their
ballots Wednesday in a fiercely contested election overshadowed by accusations
of vote-rigging as President Robert Mugabe bids to extend his 33-year rule.
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.
"I am sure people will vote freely and fairly, there is
no pressure being exerted on anyone," he said as he cast his vote in a
Harare suburb. "So far so good."
The veteran leader, a hero of Africa's liberation movement
for his fight against white minority rule who then became an international
pariah, had vowed on Tuesday that he would step down if he loses.
"If you lose you must surrender," he said,
insisting: "We have done no cheating."
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - his perennial rival and
reluctant partner in an uneasy coalition for the past four years - has voiced
concerns that the electoral roll has been rigged.
The 61-year-old former union leader, who was forced out of
the bloody election race in 2008 after 200 of his supporters were killed, told
CNN he took Mugabe's promise to step down "with a pinch of salt".
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki voiced doubts
about the way the election would be run.
"We do remain concerned about the lack of transparency
in electoral preparations, by continued partisan behaviour, by state security
institutions, and by the technical and logistical issues."
Still, Tsvangirai cut a confident figure as he cast his own
ballot, predicting his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would win
"This is a very historic moment for all of us," he
said. It is the time to "complete the change".
Turnout appeared to be brisk in the urban areas where
Tsvangirai has enjoyed his strongest support, and which he must retain to stand
any chance of victory.
Voters, some wrapped in blankets on a cold winter morning,
started queuing at least four hours before polling stations opened.
"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
Millions of Zimbabweans were forced to migrate to find work
elsewhere after an economic collapse exacerbated by the violence-marred 2008
While this year's campaign has seen little of the bloodshed
of 2008, the MDC on Tuesday handed what it claimed was documentary evidence of
plans to rig the election to observers from the Southern African Development
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.
A lot of duplicate names
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 told AFP.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was ordered Tuesday to
fully publish the roll by 10:00 GMT on Wednesday, leaving little time to
Commission chief Rita Makarau said the delayed access to the
roll had affected all parties equally.
"It has not affected one political party, so in a way
it remains unfair to all political players," she said.
Some 6.4 million people, around half of the population, are
eligible to vote in the presidential, parliamentary and local polls.
A candidate needs 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off.
Mugabe has focused his campaign on bashing homosexuals and
on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.
Amid recovery from an economic crisis that saw mass
unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is
"tried and tested".
Tsvangirai hopes his plans to lure back foreign investors,
create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a
Credible opinion polls are rare, but according to one survey
by the US-based Williams firm in March-April, Mugabe could be in for a rough
In a survey of 800 Zimbabweans, 61% said they had a
favourable view of the MDC compared with 27% for Mugabe's Zanu-PF.
The poll showed Tsvangirai leading in seven of 10 provinces
and that only 34% of those who voted for Mugabe in 2008 back him this time
Polling stations close at 17:00 GMT and final results are
expected with five days.