There are reports of “ghost voters” and hundreds of thousands of deceased people on the voter registration lists. Voters have complained about being improperly registered or not being registered at all. Human rights activists allege intimidation and interference by the government, its military and security forces in the lead-up to the elections.
Underscoring the rising tensions, Mugabe’s main opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who is challenging Mugabe for a third time, last week accused election officials of throwing away votes cast in his favor by roughly 70,000 police and soldiers who voted early.
And over the weekend Tsvangirai, 61, declared that he had no confidence in the electoral commission to conduct legitimate elections. He warned that if there were any delays in the official results like what unfolded in the disputed 2008 elections, he would break the law and announce the election outcome.
Wednesday’s elections come as Zimbabwe is emerging from an economic crisis that crippled the southern African nation. At one stage, inflation had soared to more than 500 billion percent in 2008 and economic output had sunk by 45 percent between 1999 and 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank statistics. Today, even as growth has slowed down in the past two years and poverty is still widespread, Zimbabweans are in far better, if fragile, economic shape.
But many analysts fear the nation could plunge back into economic and political instability if the election results are disputed again. Violence marred the 2008 elections, and concerns are growing that it could again erupt this time.
“A return to protracted political crisis, and possibly extensive violence, is likely, as Zimbabwe holds inadequately prepared presidential, parliamentary and local elections,” said a report by the International Crisis Group, a well-respected think tank. “Conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist. Confidence in the process and institutions is low.”
Once a major corn exporter that helped feed the region, Zimbabwe’s economy plunged into a recession following seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000 under the orders of Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, known as ZANU-PF. Agricultural output declined, and the nation was debilitated by food and fuel shortages, despite having some of the largest deposits of diamonds, gold, coal and platinum reserves in the world.
In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, Zimbabwe’s electoral commission announced the results only after five weeks. Those results showed that Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, had won, but fell short of securing enough votes to avoid a runoff. The MDC accused Mugabe and ZANU-PF of vote rigging, but that did not prevent a second round of voting. Tsvangirai later pulled out of the race, declaring that Mugabe’s loyalists had killed more than 200 of his supporters.