Voters wait for casting their ballots at a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 31, 2013. Zimbabweans went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a president, parliament members and local councillors. (Xinhua/Meng Chenguang)
HARARE, July 31 (Xinhua) — Zimbabweans went to the polls on Wednesday to choose a winner between the southern African country’s two long-time political rivals — President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
The presidential poll showdown between the two is the third time in a decade. Mugabe, Africa’s oldest head of state at the age of 89, won the previous two elections which were disputed by his rivals.
Both leaders are hopeful that they will romp to victory in Wednesday’s elections and are basing their confidence on the huge numbers that attended their campaign rallies.
Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) party, described this year’s election as ‘historic’ and ’emotional’ for all Zimbabweans after casting his vote.
“I am winning quite resoundingly I must say. I hope everyone gets time to complete the change that we always fought for the last 14 or so years,” Tsvangirai said.
Mugabe, on the other hand, said his chances of victory were as good as in 1980 when his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party grabbed 57 out of 80 parliamentary seats upon independence from Britain.
After casting his vote in a primary school in south Harare, Mugabe also brushed aside concerns over his old age, saying that he will serve a full five-year term once re-elected into the State House.
Mugabe will turn 94 when the presidential term ends in 2018.
“Why do I offer myself as a candidate if it is to cheat the people by resigning soon after,” Mugabe said.
Some 6.4 million voters are also expected to vote for more than 200 members of parliament and 1,958 local councilors.
Eager to vote, some people lined up before the polling station early Wednesday morning. Early bird voters used quilts and thermos as they roughed out the chilly Harare winter night outside the polling stations.
Angelica Mumba, 65, said she will vote for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party because it is the only party with a vision for Zimbabwe.
“Zanu-PF has the future of the country. I want it to come back to power and rebuild the nation,” Mumba said.
Disputes and violence marred Zimbabwe’s last elections in 2008. Mugabe, who won a disputed second round of presidential race, was forced into a coalition government with Tsvangirai, who won the first round.
The coalition government, though shored up a near collapse economy, dragged on four years amid continuous bickering among its major political parties.
Liu Guijin, head of the five-man Chinese observers’ team, described the vote as a “milestone” in Zimbabwe’s post- independence history.
“If credible, it can end the transitional coalition government and poise the country towards new political and social developments,” Liu told reporters “We believe Zimbabwe has every condition to be much better-off than what it is today”.
This year’s electoral process began with a chaotic start. An early voting arranged for police and polling officers was marred by delays in the delivery of ballot paper. About half of the more than 60,000 people who were supposed to vote on July 14 and July 15 failed to cast their votes.
Police officers who were denied the right to vote were given priority on Wednesday when the polls started at 7:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) nationwide.
At a polling station inside Alexandra Park Primary School in Harare’s north suburb, hundred of policemen queued from 5 a.m. to vote.
“The process goes on smoothly. I will soon go on duty,” said a police woman who declined to be named.
Tsvangirai, who cried foul of the chaotic electoral process, has openly questioned the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s ability to conduct orderly votes.
His party also raised concern Tuesday over the failure by authorities to avail them copies of the electronic voters’ roll for inspection.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, the third-ranking official in Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, said it would be difficult for Zimbabwe to have free, fair and credible elections in light of these discrepancies.
African Union (AU) Head of Observer Mission Olusegun Obasanjo said Wednesday that voting was progressing smoothly and that there was nothing so far to discredit the polls.
“There is nothing so far to worry about. We have received reports from observers in the field and they are minor incidents. I do not see anything serious enough to doubt the credibility of the election outcome if it continues like this for now,” Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, said.
With the way voting was going, Obasanjo said he believed “maybe at the end the day we can say uhuru (Swahili word for freedom) but it’s too early to say uhuru”.
Mugabe, in the rare group interview with foreign press on Tuesday, acknowledged “the hitches here and there” but denied that he systematically engineered these to rig the elections.
“I don’t have the power to manipulate the elections. I don’t control the electoral process. I simply comply and obey the electoral law,” he said.
Mugabe is a key figure in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence in the 1960s and 1970s. He was elected prime minister in 1980 and the country’s first executive president in 1987.
Since then, Mugabe won presidential elections in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. He has served one year less than Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, both of whom have been in office for the past 34 years.
The country’s new constitution, which was passed this year, stipulates that a president can only serve two five-year terms but it is not retroactive, meaning in theory Mugabe can rule until 2023.
John Campbell, U.S.-based Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, said so long as Mugabe lives, ZANU-PF will likely win a national election. It benefits from the advantage of incumbency.
Land is by far the most important domestic issue in the country and Mugabe has been on the side of justice from the point of view of black Zimbabweans, Campbell said in an analysis posted on the website of U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, a vote count will immediately commence after polls close. Results for the final presidential vote will be announced within five days. If no candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, which is required for an outright win, a run-off will be held on Sept. 11.
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