Counting was under way Tuesday in Zimbabwe after a strong turnout in the first election since long-ruling leader Robert Mugabe was ousted from power.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ex-president Mugabe’s former right-hand man in the ruling ZANU-PF party, faced off Monday against opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) in the historic vote.
“I am not shy to say I voted for Chamisa. He is young and can understand our plight as youth,” said Ndumiso Nyoni, 20, a worker at a lodge in Lupane, southern Zimbabwe.
At one polling station in the capital Harare, officials counted large piles of votes using gas lanterns and candles late into the night.
Officials overseeing the polls, in which a record number of candidates stood, said many polling stations had queues and estimated that average turnout was around 75 percent by 1600 GMT on Monday.
“It is our view that the high voter turnout is indicative of sound voter education and publicity,” said Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba at a media briefing in Harare.
Previously-banned European Union election observers, present for the first time in years, said participation appeared high but warned of possible “shortcomings” in the vote.
“There are shortcomings that we have to check. We don’t know yet whether it was a pattern or whether it was a question of bad organisation in certain polling stations,” the EU’s chief observer Elmar Brok told AFP. The bloc will deliver a report on the conduct of the election on Wednesday.
“Overall (there was) a huge amount of voting — especially young people, mostly in a very good atmosphere, generally peaceful, which is positive,” he added.
With 5.6 million registered voters, the results of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections are due by August 4.
A run-off vote is scheduled for September 8 if no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent.
Mugabe, 94, who was ousted by the military in November, voted at his customary polling station in Harare alongside his wife Grace after a surprise two-hour press conference at his home on Sunday when he called for voters to reject ZANU-PF.
Mugabe, wearing a dark suit and red tie, was greeted with cheers after casting his ballot but did not answer journalists’ questions about who he voted for.
Mnangagwa, who voted in his Kwekwe constituency in central Zimbabwe, said Mugabe had the right to express himself in the country’s new “democratic space”.
Mnangagwa, 75, has promised change and is the clear front-runner benefitting from tacit military support, loyal state media and ruling party controls of government resources.
“Zimbabwe experienced a beautiful expression of freedom and democracy. In our millions, we voted in the spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and peace,” Mnangagwa wrote on Twitter after polls closed.
Mnangagwa also called on “citizens and candidates alike to exercise responsibility and restraint by patiently waiting” for official results.
His rival Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor who has performed strongly on the campaign trail, hopes to tap into the youth vote.
“We should be very clear as to an emphatic voice for change, the new, and the young — I represent that,” Chamisa said as he voted in Harare, surrounded by vocal supporters.
He again raised fraud allegations saying his victory would be assured if rigged ballots were excluded.
On Twitter, he alleged there was a “deliberate attempt to suppress” voting in urban areas — MDC strongholds.
Voting appeared to pass off largely without incident despite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warning of intimidation and threats of violence in the run-up to polling day.
The new government will face mass unemployment and an economy shattered by the seizure of white-owned farms under Mugabe, the collapse of agriculture, hyperinflation and an investment exodus.
“While investors remain sceptical over whether Mugabe’s former right-hand man has indeed turned over a new leaf, Mnangagwa’s charm offensive with Western governments and businesses has at least given him a credible lifeline at the poll,” said Verisk Maplecrodt analyst Charles Laurie in a note.