- Title: ZIMBABWE: Zimbabweans vote in presidential election
- Date: 30th March 2008
- Summary: INTERIOR OF POLLING STATION ELECTORAL OFFICERS VARIOUS OF BETTY SITHUTHU VOTING
- Embargoed: 14th April 2008 13:00
- Location: Zimbabwe
- Country: Zimbabwe
- Topics: Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA875AB75H2VRY9WILKH5J1EN01
- Story Text: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe faces the biggest challenge of his 28-year-rule in the most crucial election since independence from Britain in 1980.
Zimbabweans, many desperate for an end to their economic misery, voted on Saturday (March 29) in the most crucial election since independence in 1980, but the opposition accused President Robert Mugabe's government of rigging.
Zimbabwe is suffering the world's highest inflation rate at more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.
Mugabe, who blames the collapse on Western sanctions, faces the biggest challenge of his 28-year rule from veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni.
Some people slept at polling stations and queues formed before they opened just after 7.00 a.m. (0500 GMT). Cecilia Ndlovu had queued since the early hours to make her mark for progress.
"I came here at 1.30 am, I just want my vote to bring change in this country, as I speak, my kids are not in school," she said.
Both Tsvangirai and Makoni accuse him of plotting to rig the election.
The local election observer group ZESN said turnout looked low and some voters were turned away in opposition strongholds.
But despite the odds stacked against the 84-year-old Mugabe, many analysts believe he will be declared the victor.
He refuted the ballot-rigging charges when he voted in Harare on Saturday, denying any wrongdoing.
"We don't rig elections you see, we have that sense of honesty and I cannot sleep with my conscience if I have cheated in the elections, why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us day in, day out," said Mugabe.
The opposition feared many supporters would not have time to vote, saying polling stations were distributed in favour of Mugabe's rural strongholds.
But further allegations of electoral fraud marred the poll.
A local journalist who asked not to be named said thousands of voters had turned out in Mugabe's southern stronghold of Masvingo province. He said village heads appeared to have instructed them to vote for the president.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said voting ink could be removed from ballots with detergent.
Combined with a bloated voter roll and the printing of 3 million extra ballot papers this "ensures that there will be multiple voting" said Tendai Biti a senior MDC official.
He said voting was slow and some election agents were prevented from entering polling stations. He said hundreds of voters were also turned away as unregistered.
A monitoring group from the Pan-African parliament said it found that more than one third of the 24,000 registered voters in one Harare constituency appeared to come from a deserted block "with a few scattered wooden sheds".
But most international observers were banned and a team from the regional grouping SADC did not comment on Saturday. Critics say SADC, which has tried to mediate an end to Zimbabwe's crisis, is too soft on Mugabe.
Election officials were not immediately available to comment on the reports of irregularities.
Despite the fraud allegations, Tsvangirai said he would win.
"I want to assure you that the people's victory is assured, in spite of the regime's attempt to circumvent the people's will through other fraudulent activities, that have been unearthed, a million votes in Marambapfungwe, 33 ghost polling stations in Mashona central and others. In spite of all that, I can tell you that we are absolutely confident that the outcome will be for the people," he said as he voted in Harare.
Out in the Zimbabwean countryside near the southern city of Bulawayo, seen as a stronghold for the opposition MDC, people turned out to vote in force with many saying they were hoping for change.
Betty Sithuthu and her husband Sagodola Sikhosana joined the hundreds of other voters in the Gadade area, 40 kilometres from Bulawayo to cast their vote in the early morning on Saturday (March 29).
After voting Betty was optimistic that their votes would change their lives for the better.
"We hope that our voting will change our way of living, as you can see in our fields there is no food, so we hope that the new government is going to help us so that we can educate our children as we are unable to educate them. Things are tough here in Zimbabwe," said Betty.
At Khulumani, also a suburb of Bulawayo, voters also expressed optimism that change would come.
Mugabe's rivals believe they can finally end his iron rule because of the economic meltdown that has reduced even his traditional and favoured rural strongholds to misery.
But the powerful security forces have thrown their backing behind Mugabe, stoking accusations that he will use his incumbent power to rig victory.
Voters on Saturday said police and army units backed by armoured vehicles and water cannons had patrolled overnight.
Some security chiefs say they will not accept a Tsvangirai victory but he said they must be bound by the constitution.
If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote on Saturday, the election will go into a second round, when the two opposition parties would likely unite.
Analysts would also expect a violent crackdown against MDC supporters in the three-week hiatus between the two votes.
Tsvangirai, widely seen as the strongest challenger to Mugabe, said in an interview on Friday that he would invite moderate members of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party into a national unity government if he wins the election.
Most international election observers have been banned from Zimbabwe, except for a team from the regional SADC grouping, which critics accuse of taking too soft a line with Mugabe.
Analysts say Mugabe has maintained a tight grip on power through a combination of ruthless security crackdowns, intimidation of ruling party rivals and elaborate patronage.
Voting was largely peaceful but police said a bomb exploded in the house of a ruling party candidate in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold. No-one was hurt.
Polling stations closed on time at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Results are not expected for several days from the presidential, parliamentary and local polls.
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