Millions of people have voted peacefully in Zimbabwe’s first election since the removal of Robert Mugabe, with the result determining the former British colony’s future for decades.
Turnout on Monday appeared extremely high, with long lines of voters forming outside polling stations across the country when they opened at 7am (0600 BST).
By early afternoon, polling officials in the capital, Harare, and surrounding towns were reporting that between 75% and 85% of registered voters had cast their ballots. Full results are not due until much later in the week, and possibly as late as the weekend.
Speaking as he queued at a primary school on the outskirts of Harare – an opposition stronghold – Tinashe Musuwo, 20, said: “I am very optimistic this morning. Things will get better now.”
The two main candidates could not be more different: the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, was a longtime Mugabe aide and is head of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Nelson Chamisa, 40, who leads the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is a lawyer and pastor whose only experience of power was a stint as a minister in a coalition government several years ago.
The two represent dramatically different ideologies and political styles, as well as generations. Mnangagwa offers continuity; Chamisa a radical rupture.
Addressing reporters as he voted on the outskirts of Harare, Chamisa said: “This is a great moment for Zimbabwe. The people have spoken. I know we are winning. I know we have won.”
International observers offered varying impressions of the election, but they all noted it had been peaceful.
Elmar Brok, the EU’s chief observer, said the voting had been “very smooth” in some cases and “totally disorganised” in others. Other observer missions said they had seen “nothing abnormal and nothing to question the poll’s credibility”.
Nyari Musabeyana, 30, a hairdresser in Kuwadzana, near Harare, said she had got up early to vote for change. “We wish things to be OK in our village. We have no jobs, no cash, no economy. It is the fault of the past government,” Musabeyana said.
Almost four decades of rule by Mugabe has left Zimbabwe with a shattered economy, soaring unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
Support for Zanu-PF has historically been strongest in rural areas, particularly its Mashonaland heartland, where more than two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s 17 million people live.
Daniel Chiwesengwa, 74, a retired municipal officer who voted at a remote polling station, said: “The story of our country is the story of this party. They have always done a lot for the people. Chamisa is a young guy. This country needs someone mature.”
If no candidate wins more than half the votes, there will be a runoff in five weeks, though analysts believe this scenario is unlikely. Another possibility is negotiations to form some kind of coalition government if the result is very close.
Although the campaign has been free of the systematic violence that marred previous polls, the MDC has repeatedly claimed it has been hindered by a flawed electoral roll, ballot paper malpractice, voter intimidation, bias in the Zimbabwe electoral commission and handouts to voters from the ruling party.
Diplomats in Harare say the “playing field has not been level”.
There are also widespread fears among opposition activists and supporters that the government or the powerful military will refuse to cede power if defeated. This would provoke massive protests, MDC loyalists said.
“If we are robbed, we will go to the streets,” one MDC supporter said.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian president and a leader of one of the observer missions accredited for the first time in Zimbabwe, spoke of “a critical moment in Zimbabwe’s democratic journey”.
“The elections today provide an opportunity to break with the past,” Sirleaf said at a polling station in a school in Harare. “The lines and voter enthusiasm we are seeing … must be matched by an accurate count and their choice must be honoured.”
Zimbabwe’s rulers know that a fraudulent election would block the country’s reintegration into the international community and deny it the huge bailout package needed to avoid economic meltdown.
Mnangagwa has stressed foreign investment and “unity” during campaigning.
On Monday, he urged Zimbabweans to be peaceful, tweeting: “We are one people, with one dream and one destiny. We will sink or swim together.”
For the first time since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a brutal guerrilla war against a white supremacist regime, Mugabe is not on the ballot paper. In an astonishing intervention on Sunday, the former president said he would not vote for his former party, Zanu-PF, or the current president, and endorsed Chamisa.
“I cannot vote for the party or those in power who caused me to be in this condition,” he said.
Almost all voters who spoke to the Guardian in recent days said they were happy with a “free and fair” campaign.
Masiwa Nachipo, 45, an unemployed teacher from Norton, 25 miles from Harare, said: “I am very happy. It is a very important election for me, my kids and the future of generations. We need a big change. We want a fresh start.”Post published in: Featured