Thousands of Zimbabweans streamed to the polls on Wednesday, casting their ballots in what many are calling the most pivotal election since Zimbabwe voted out white rule in 1980. Despite frigid predawn temperatures, people lined up before the polling stations opened, eager to cast their votes.
In Harare, the capital, there was none of the violence and intimidation that characterized the disastrous 2008 presidential election.
“This is a huge change, the fact that people can stand around and talk openly about their views,” said Namo Mariga, an agribusiness entrepreneur, after casting his ballot in the upscale suburb of Borrowdale. “The atmosphere is much freer.”
The election pits Robert G. Mugabe, 89, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 33 years, against former union organizer Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. Mr. Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of the presidential election in 2008 but refused to participate in a runoff because of crackdowns on his supporters that left 200 people dead. A deal brokered by regional powers put the two rivals into an uneasy power-sharing agreement and both candidates are seeking an outright victory to govern alone.
“It is quite an emotional moment sometimes when you see all these people after all the conflict, the stalemate, the suspicion, the hostility,” a wistful Mr. Tsvangirai said after casting his ballot. “I think there is a sense of calmness that finally Zimbabwe will be able to move on again.”
Sporadic problems were reported from a number of regions. Lines were long in urban areas, raising concerns that not everyone would be able to vote on Wednesday. The challengers claimed that the Zimbabwe Election Commission had deliberately reduced the number of polling stations in their strongholds to discourage voters but the commission denied this. Some voters who registered recently found that their names were not on the rolls, but were able to cast ballots using the registration receipt.
But fears of rigging remained high. Neil Padmore, 35, brought his own pen to the polling station because he had heard that the government’s pens used invisible ink that would disappear a few hours after the ballot was cast.
“I am hoping that the sheer volume of the voters will prevent them from rigging,” said Mr. Padmore, who runs a company that lays fiber optic cable. “We need change in Zimbabwe. We can’t have this draconian environment.
But some voters said that Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, deserve to stay in power because they put Zimbabwe’s agricultural land, long controlled by a few thousand white commercial farmers, into the hands of black people through seizures.
Amina, a 26-year-old clothing trader who lives in Mbare and asked that only her first name be used, said that her brother was given a farm by the government and has prospered.
“He’s getting rich by the season,” she said. Her father had fought in Mr. Mugabe’s insurgent army in the 1970s and lost a leg to a bomb. Mr. Mugabe, she said, had made black people masters of their own destiny.
“He always told us the main grievance for the war was that we needed land,” she said. “They wanted to be masters of their own country.”
President Mugabe, the man who has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of white domination in 1980, retains his iron grip on the country’s feared security apparatus and there are few signs that he is ready to give up the reins of power.
“The 89 years don’t mean anything,” a confident Mr. Mugabe said in a rare interview. “They haven’t changed me, have they? They haven’t withered me. They haven’t made me senile yet, no. I still have ideas, ideas that need to be accepted by my people.”
But even with the shadow of the last election still looming, Edison Masunda was unafraid as he joined others streaming into a dusty field at the edge of the city center, part of a crimson wave of tens of thousands who gathered for the challenging party’s final rally on Monday