HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabweans voted on Monday in the first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed moment they hope will rid the country of its pariah status and spark a recovery in its failed economy.
The election pits 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, against 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
On the eve of the election, Mugabe emerged from eight months of obscurity since the military ousted him in a bloodless coup, to announce he would vote for the opposition, surprising former ally Mnangagwa who accused him of striking a deal with Chamisa.
Voting started at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will end at 7 p.m.
Opinion polls give former intelligence chief Mnangagwa, who took over as president after the army ousted Mugabe, only a slim lead over Chamisa.
There will be a runoff on Sept. 8 if no candidate wins more than half the votes.
Nicknamed “the Crocodile”, an animal famed in Zimbabwean lore for its stealth and ruthlessness, Mnangagwa, of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), has pledged to revive the moribund economy, attract foreign investment and mend racial and tribal divisions.
Queues of eager voters snaked around the streets of the capital Harare from before sunrise.
“ZANU-PF is the only party that I have voted for,” said Elizabeth Kamhunga, 67, after casting her vote at a school in the Harare suburb of Malbereign.
“We may have made some mistakes but I think President Mnangagwa is the only person who has the interests of Zimbabwe at heart.”
Chamisa, who honed his rhetorical skills in the courtroom and the pulpit, has attracted young and unemployed voters frustrated with nearly four decades of ZANU–PF rule.
“This is a historic day,” said Fabian Matsika, a security guard who woke at 4:30 a.m. to travel to his polling station on the outskirts of the capital.
“I’ll vote for Chamisa because it is a vote for change, it is a vote for the youth. Tomorrow we will have a new president.”
Mugabe, one of the last “Big Men” of African politics, still looms large over Zimbabwean society and his comments may yet influence the first vote without his name on the ballot paper since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.
For Zimbabwe to be welcomed back into the international fold, end painful sanctions and secure the donor funding it needs to stem chronic cash shortages, observers have to sign off on the vote as being credible.
Several elections under Mugabe were marred by intimidation, rigging and widespread violence but the consensus is the build-up to this vote has been better than before.
There have been reports of intimidation and coercion and state media are biased towards ZANU–PF. Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has questioned the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
Mnangagwa has welcomed foreign media and international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Commonwealth, who are watching polling stations across the country.
There remain concerns that people may be intimidated into voting a certain way by party members.
“It is exciting to see so many Zimbabweans casting ballots,” said former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s observer mission.
“However the public’s faith in the secrecy of the ballot is essential for the credibility of the process. We urge the authorities to do everything possible to ensure the secrecy of today’s vote.”
Mnangagwa has made a big effort to win over foreign opinion; hosting Western ambassadors, courting investors and patching up relations with white commercial farmers who were violently evicted from their farms under Mugabe.
Whoever wins will face the mammoth task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule that was tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation, sending one of Africa’s most promising economies into crisis.