Zimbabweans vote for a new president Wednesday, after a violent and disputed election in 2008 and five anxious and turbulent years since.
The much anticipated vote ends a power-sharing deal between veteran leader Robert Mugabe and his main political rival, who is the leading challenger in the presidential race.
Campaigning was enthusiastic and good-natured ahead of the vote, a marked contrast to what rights campaigners said was state-sponsored violence after the first round of voting five years ago. Then, the opposition pulled out of the election, handing victory to President Robert Mugabe.
Today, prospective voters, like Linda Munetsi, a 32-year-old mother of three, say what Zimbabwe needs most is peace and progress after hitting rock bottom, economically and politically. "We need freedom in Zimbabwe ... that's what we want," Munetsi says. "There's peace in Zimbabwe. We need peace; we need to continue in peace, even after the elections."
Seeking re-election for a seventh term is 89-year-old Mugabe. He has held power in Zimbabwe since Rhodesia fought a liberation war and won independence from Britain in 1980. At a news conference on Tuesday, Mugabe told reporters he is prepared to step down if he's defeated.
"There are only two outcomes — win or lose," Mugabe said. "If you lose, you must surrender to those who have won. If you win, those who have lost must also surrender to you. This is it."
But as he crisscrossed the country campaigning, Mugabe predicted outright victory in Wednesday's election. His main political adversary, Morgan Tsvangirai, is singing the same triumphal tune in what is his third presidential contest. He has been Zimbabwe's prime minister in an often-fraught and fragile power-sharing government with Mugabe for the past four years.
"Fellow Zimbabweans, walk with me in this last march to a new Zimbabwe, a new country of hope and prosperity," Tsvangirai told supporters. "Walk with me on this memorable journey to settle a new trajectory for our beloved country. You have an opportunity to elect for the first time a new leadership in this country, a leadership that has the energy and the vision for the future."
Despite a largely peaceful campaign, the opposition has criticized parts of the process; some issues remain unsettled. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change accuses the president's party of doctoring the electoral roll so that it can rig the election. After weeks of delay, the final list of voters was belatedly published by the election commission at the last minute. That's just not right, says the MDC's Jameson Timba.
"You cannot have a voters roll given to you less than 24 hours before an election. The voters roll in itself is in total shambles," Timba says. "We've got a good number of duplicate names ... [and] this goes on and on, across the voters roll and across constituencies and across wards."
Mugabe's party denies any involvement in the delayed release of the voters lists and says that all parties are represented on the electoral commission. Despite these assurances, there's growing concern in some quarters that this anomaly could skew the outcome of the election, with loud talk about possible vote fraud.
Nevertheless, Zimbabweans are eager to cast their ballots and hope that this time around, the vote will be transparent and peaceful and reflect the people's will.
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