Zimbabweans flock to polling stations to decide if Robert Mugabe, who has vowed he will step down if he loses, will extend his 33-year-long presidency.
Thousands of voters waited in line to vote (see picture above), and observers reported an “impressive” turnout.
Activists believe a large turnout could favour President Mugabe’s opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, as it would limit the impact of any manipulation of votes. President Mugabe, however, has said any suggestion that votes would be manipulated is mud-slinging from his opponents.
President Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai both voted on Wednesday in Harare (see video, below), where thousands of armed police had been deployed in restive areas.
“So far, so good,” Mr Mugabe said as he cast his vote. He said he expected to be re-elected. Mr Tsvangirai said: “We have come to complete the change we have always fought for. It is an emotional moment for me but I am filled with a sense of calmness.”
State radio said thousands of officers had been sent to the central Midlands province, while trucks of police carrying automatic rifles and grenade launchers patrolled some of Harare’s townships.
The presidential and parliamentary elections, following four years of unity government, have been marked by allegations of threats and intimidation by security forces, but no reports of violence.
With no reliable opinion polls, it is difficult to tell whether Mr Tsvangirai, the prime minister, will beat President Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980 and has said he will stand down if he loses.
President Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are both predicting landslide victories.
Western election observers have been barred, leaving the task of independent scrutiny to 500 regional and 7,000 domestic monitors.
The final results must be released within five days, but may come sooner, although human rights groups say the elections will not be free or fair.
In an article in the domestic News Day newspaper and the Washington Post, Mr Tsvangirai said: “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.”
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Robert Mugabe, who is 89, has called the elections a “do or die” contest.
In 2008, South Africa and other countries in the region brokered a unity government between Messrs Mugabe and Tsvangirai to break the deadlock caused by the MDC’s withdrawal from the second round of elections because of violence perpetrated against it.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report issued on Monday: “A return to protracted political crisis, and possibly extensive violence, is likely.” It also criticised the chaotic organisation of the election.
Critics say older people, who are more likely to vote for President Mugabe, are over-represented in lists of registered electors, while young people, who are more likely to favour Mr Tsvangirai, are under-represented. The presence of more than 116,000 people aged over 100 has aroused suspicions.
Holding fair elections is key to the lifting of western sanctions on President Mugabe and his inner circle. President Mugabe’s control of the security forces and preferential access to the media give him a big advantage.
President Mugabe freed his country from white minority rule and took over a prosperous nation that was the envy of Africa before a catastrophic economic meltdown began in 1997, triggered by a corruption scandal and the seizure of white-owned farms.
Mr Tsvangirai narrowly beat President Mugabe in the last elections in 2008, but boycotted the run-offs.