Troubled start to Zimbabwean poll

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A ZANU-PF supporter holds a portrait of President Emmerson Mnangagwa during the party’s campaign rally on August 19, 2023 in Shurugwi, Zimbabwe. Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images

Delays marred the start of balloting in key districts in Zimbabwe’s elections on Wednesday, prompting opposition accusations of vote manipulation after a campaign marked by tension and a clampdown.

The poll is being watched across southern Africa as a test of support for the ZANU-PF party, whose 43-year rule has been battered by an economic slump and charges of authoritarianism.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, who came to power after a coup that deposed late ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017, is squaring off against Nelson Chamisa, 45, of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

In the capital Harare, less than a quarter of the polling stations opened on time and some opened eight hours after schedule.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission blamed the problem on delays in the printing of ballot papers “arising from numerous court challenges”.

Ballots at a school serving as a polling station in Kambuzuma township on the outskirts of Harare arrived only after 2.30pm (1230 GMT) whereas polling had been scheduled to start at 7am.

“I have been here since 6am. I am so disappointed,” said Linda Phiri, 53, a mother of three. 

“I’m sleeping here, I am not going home… I want to cast that vote so that we are liberated,” said Phiri.

“They want to rig,” added an exasperated Chrispen Marambakuwanda, 45, unemployed.

Chamisa lashed out at the problems, saying “the election has not been normal”.

“This is classic of voter suppression,” he said, pointing to delays that he said had especially affected CCC strongholds. 

“The fact they have targeted Harare… is an indication that they are scared of people in the urban areas.”

“The regime is panicking,” said CCC spokesman Fadzayi Mahere.

At least 6.6 million people were registered to vote, with publication of results legally required within five days.

To clinch re-election, Mnangagwa must win an absolute majority or face a runoff, due within a couple of months.

Casting his ballot in his home town of Kwekwe in central Zimbabwe, a confident Mnangagwa – nicknamed the “Crocodile” for his determination – told journalists: “If I think I’m not going to take it, then I will be foolish.”

“Everyone who contests should go into the race to win”, he added, sporting his trademark multicoloured scarf. 

Graft and economy

The opposition has been hoping to ride a wave of discontent over corruption, high inflation, unemployment and entrenched poverty.

In Kwekwe, unemployed voter Freddy Kondowe hoped the election would deliver him “a good job” and that “my president is going to give us good governance”.

Voting in Harare’s upscale Borrowdale Brooke, Michael Chitoka, a 27-year-old jobless engineering graduate, said he hoped to “do away with the current evil system, which has made us poor”.

“I’d like an honest government, less corruption, more tolerance of other views. Not this idea of ‘you’re the enemy if you don’t agree with everything I say’,” said retired lawyer Brian Crozier, 79, waiting to vote in the same neighbourhood.

Chamisa’s struggle

A lawyer and pastor, Chamisa has promised to renew the country by rooting out graft, relaunching the economy and ending Zimbabwe’s long international isolation.

Yet in a nation with a history of tainted elections, few believe he will emerge the outright winner.

His party has complained about being unfairly targeted by authorities. Its members have been arrested, dozens of its events blocked, and little or no airtime has been allotted to it on national television.

Chamisa narrowly lost to Mnangagwa in 2018, a poll that he condemned as fraudulent and was followed by a deadly crackdown on protests.

The former British colony, then named Rhodesia, broke away from London in 1965 under white-minority rule.

After a long guerrilla war, it gained independence in 1980 and was renamed Zimbabwe. 

But under Mugabe, its first leader, the fledgling democracy spiralled into hardline rule and economic decline, with hyperinflation wiping out savings and deterring investment.

Despite its rich potential in agriculture and mining, Zimbabwe is burdened by “unsustainable” debt levels, the World Bank has warned.

© Agence France-Presse

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