By Krista Mahr
Millions of Zimbabweans waited in line for hours on Monday to vote in a historic election that, for the first time since the nation’s independence from Britain in 1980, did not include former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot.
With observers expecting a high turnout, voters embraced the chance to cast their ballots in an atmosphere that they said was peaceful, after years of elections marred by intimidation, violence and fear.
“It’s a very big change,” said Tsitsi Muchela, a 27-year-old from Harare’s Mbare neighborhood. “Last time it was hard. People were not able to show which party they were voting for. Now I have no hesitation — these are free and fair elections.”
The two candidates vying to lead Zimbabwe into its post-Mugabe future are President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old war veteran nicknamed the “Crocodile” who took over when Mugabe was ousted in November, and Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old opposition leader whose supporters compare him to Barack Obama.
The men have hinged their campaigns on the same fundamental promise: to usher in a new era of prosperity after Mugabe’s long years of misrule left Zimbabwe isolated, broke and with rampant unemployment.
But Zimbabweans appear divided over who can deliver that change, according to a recent poll, though it gave Mnangagwa a slight edge.
Late Monday, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that voter turnout was as high as 75% in some areas. Final results are not expected until the end of the week, and a close vote could lead to a runoff, which would be held Sept. 8.
Although the weeks before the vote were largely peaceful, rights groups flagged some reports of voter intimidation, particularly in rural areas. Chamisa has repeatedly raised questions over the credibility of the vote, and on Monday several of his supporters vowed to take to the streets if his Movement for Democratic Change party loses, claiming only a rigged election could result in a win for the ruling ZANU-PF party.
As Chamisa’s black SUV pulled up to a polling station in Kuwadzana, the Harare suburb he represents in parliament, his supporters rushed to get a look at the candidate. “Chamisa! Chamisa!” the crowd chanted. “My president! My president!”
“Victory is certain for the people,” Chamisa told reporters after casting his ballot. “It’s clear that the vote is a vote for freedom, a vote for a new Zimbabwe, a vote for a new direction.”
Takudzwa Mushipe, a 25-year-old MDC supporter who was standing in line to vote when Chamisa arrived, said it was “obvious” the candidate should win.
As a trained accountant who hasn’t been able to find any work, Mushipe said that he’s fed up with how things are in the country and that he’s not alone. “You study. You get everything right. You do everything by the book. But at the end of the day, you have nothing to show for it,” he said.
At another polling station in the suburb of Highfield, MDC supporter Previous Luanda said she was prepared to protest if the party didn’t prevail in Monday’s vote. “I am ready. I am ready 100%,” she said.
Since taking over after Mugabe’s ouster, President Mnangagwa — a longtime Mugabe ally in ZANU-PF — has worked hard to present himself as a break from the past, promising to bring investors to Zimbabwe and revive the flagging economy, using the catchphrase “Zimbabwe is open for business.”
ZANU-PF supporters say that the changes they have seen under the new president — more efficiency, less corruption, increased investor interest and more jobs — are proof that Mnangagwa’s long years in government have left him better prepared for the job than his younger, less experienced opponent.
“Mnangagwa knows all the problems we are having in Zimbabwe,” said Sanganu, a ZANU-PF supporter in Highfield who asked to be identified by one name.
“We teach our kids where we came from, and what these leaders did for our country,” she continued, referring to the fight for independence. “We need a leader who understands the suffering we went through.”
Election observers, some of whom have been allowed in for the first time since 2002, gave mixed reviews of how the highly anticipated vote went on Monday.
“There have been no incidents of violence, and it’s been quite orderly,” said Lizwe Jamela, the programs manager for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a civil society group helping monitor the polls.
He added, however, that there were scattered reports during the day of people being left off voter lists, polling stations being inexplicably closed and some monitors not being allowed into their assigned polling sites.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who is in Zimbabwe as a co-leader of the joint observer mission of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, said she saw some polling stations that were “very well organized” and others where things “were not as orderly.”
She said that voter turnout appeared to be huge.
“Even in the remote polling places, there were lines,” Bass said. “People seemed very committed to their participation.” But, she added, “somebody has to lose.”
The genuine sense of uncertainty over the election outcome is a testament to fairness at the polls, U.S. Ambassador Brian Nichols said on the eve of the vote.
“The environment for this election is the most open it has been in recent memory,” he said. “The fact that people really don’t know who’s going to win speaks volumes.”
In Mbare, Fortunate Dube, 45, walked with her husband and two daughters through a large clearing of yellowed grass, where lines of voters snaked around several tented polling stations.
In 2008, Dube said, she was coerced into voting for ZANU-PF after she and others in the area were threatened with beatings if they didn’t do so. Today, she said she cast her vote for the opposition.
“This time it was so nice,” she said. “Maybe God is with us. Maybe God wants us to have a change.”
Mahr is a special correspondent.