HARARE, Zimbabwe — Polls opened in Zimbabwe on Wednesday as President Emmerson Mnangagwa seeks a second and final term in a country with a history of violent and disputed votes.
These are the second general elections since the ouster of longtime repressive ruler Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017.
Twelve presidential candidates are on the ballot, but the main contest is expected to be between the 80-year-old Mnangagwa, known as the "the crocodile", and 45-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. Mnangagwa narrowly beat Chamisa in a disputed election in 2018.
Chamisa hopes to break the ruling ZANU-PF party’s 43-year hold on power. Zimbabwe has known only two leaders since gaining independence from white minority rule in 1980.
A runoff election will be held on Oct. 2. if no candidate wins a clear majority in the first round. This election will also determine the makeup of the 350-seat parliament and close to 2,000 local council positions.
In several poor townships of the capital, Harare, some people were at polling stations two hours before voting opened, fearing long lines.
“It’s becoming tougher to survive in this country," said Basil Chendambuya, 50, an early voter in the working-class township of KuwadzanaI in Harare. "I am hoping for change. This is my third time to vote and I am praying hard that this time my vote counts. I am getting desperate, so God has to intervene this time round.” The father of three said his two adult children are working menial jobs and surviving “hand to mouth.”
The southern African nation of 15 million people has vast mineral resources, including Africa’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in making electric car batteries. But watchdogs have long alleged that widespread corruption and mismanagement have gutted much of the country's potential.
European Union chief election observer Fabio Massimo Castaldo told reporters at a polling station in Harare that around 30% of polling stations there had significant delays in opening, often linked to the lack of essential materials, "notably, in many cases, paper ballots.”
Ahead of the election, the opposition and human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Mnangagwa of seeking to silence dissent amid rising tensions due to a currency crisis, a sharp hike in food prices, a weakening public health system and a lack of formal jobs.
Mnangagwa voted in his hometown of Kwekwe and expressed confidence he would win. “If I think I am not going to take it, then I will be foolish,” he said, and encouraged people to be peaceful during the voting period.
Mnangagwa was a close ally of Mugabe and served as vice president before a fallout ahead of the 2017 coup. He has sought to portray himself as a reformer, but many accuse him of being even more repressive than the man he helped remove from power.
Zimbabwe has been under United States and EU sanctions for the past two decades over allegations of human rights abuses, charges denied by the ruling party. Mnangagwa has in recent years repeated much of Mugabe’s rhetoric against the West, accusing it of seeking to topple his regime.
Ahead of elections, observers from the EU and the U.S. have come under criticism from officials and state-run media for allegedly being biased against the ruling party.
The Carter Center, invited by the government to observe the polls, has said 30 members of its 48-member observer team were yet to be accredited on the eve of the elections and any further delay will “hinder its ability to observe polling, counting, and tabulation in many locations.”
Several local human rights activists, including lawyers and a clergyman viewed as critical of the government, have been denied accreditation to observe the vote. The U.S. State Department has condemned Zimbabwe’s decision to deny accreditation to them and to several foreign journalists.