HARARE, (Reuters) – Zimbabweans lined up to vote on Wednesday saying they were hungry for change from relentless economic chaos but analysts were sceptical that the ruling ZANU-PF party would allow a credible election or any loosening of its stranglehold on power.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking re-election after a first term during which runaway inflation, currency shortages and sky-high unemployment left many Zimbabweans reliant on dollar remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet.
“I am expecting change. We are struggling and hungry,” said Mabel Fambi, 67, who cares for five of her grandchildren because their parents cannot find jobs. She was waiting to cast her ballot in the Kuwadzana constituency in the capital Harare.
Zimbabwe’s chances of resolving a debt crisis and accessing World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans are at stake, as foreign lenders have said a free and fair election is a pre-condition for any meaningful talks.
Mnangagwa, who took over when longtime strongman Robert Mugabe was toppled in a 2017 military coup, faces 10 other candidates, including his main challenger, lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change.
It is the second contest between the two after Mnangagwa won a closely contested poll in 2018, which the opposition alleged was rigged, but the country’s constitutional court upheld the result.
“I have been waiting for this day since 2018. We want change. We want a younger president,” said shoe mender Jonathan Darare, 47, who came out early to vote in Kuwadzana.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), with some 6.6 million people registered to vote in the nation of about 15 million. Parliamentary results are expected to trickle in on Thursday morning. The presidential result is expected later, though well ahead of a five-day deadline.
In Harare, only 18 out of 77 polling stations opened on time, which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission attributed to delays in the printing of ballot papers arising from court challenges. The commission said polling stations that opened late would close later to make up for it.
Few or no delays were reported in other parts of the country.
Mnangagwa cast his ballot at Sherwood Primary School in the city of Kwekwe, where dozens of voters lined up from 6 a.m.
An electoral officer at the polling station, where 1,500 voters are registered, said turnout was high.
“I want a better life for my children. They need jobs. I hope that after voting life will become better,” said communal farmer Beatrice Sibanda, 65.
LITTLE CHANGE SINCE MUGABE ERA
The Zimbabwe dollar has weakened by about 85% since the start of the year and inflation has reached triple digits, pushing people further into poverty in a country where only 30% hold formal jobs.
But while the economic maelstrom could favour the opposition in a clean election, analysts said ZANU-PF, which has been in power for more than four decades, had an unfair advantage.
“The electoral playing field is heavily skewed in favour of the ruling party, which has used state institutions to close the democratic space,” said Africa Risk Consulting, a private firm, in a pre-election note.
“Five years into Mnangagwa’s rule, conditions have not changed much from the Mugabe era,” it said.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a think tank, predicted Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF would win by a narrower margin and not by fair means, raising the risk of disputes over the results and public protests.
“We expect policy continuity after elections but economic turnaround will be slower given a background of increased isolation from the international partners and possible extension of sanctions following a likely non-credible election,” said EIU analyst Stanley Mabuka.
ZANU-PF denies seeking to influence the outcome.
To win the presidency, a candidate must get more than 50% of the vote. If there is no outright winner, a run-off between the top two candidates will be held on Oct. 2.
Parliamentary and local council candidates only need a simple majority of votes cast.