Zimbabwe’s leading opposition candidate accused the country’s electoral authorities of trying to suppress voter turnout at presidential elections on Monday, raising fears of a disputed outcome to the historic poll.
Millions of Zimbabweans turned out to vote in the country’s first presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections since dictator Robert Mugabe was ousted in a military coup in November.
The outcome will decide whether Emmerson Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old former ally of Mr Mugabe, or Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and preacher leading the opposition MDC alliance, will be the country's next president.
The only poll released in the run up to the vote showed Mr Mnangagwa leading Mr Chamisa by just 3 per cent, and the results, which must be announced by Saturday, are expected to be tight.
Mr Chamisa, who has repeatedly accused the country's electoral authorities of colluding with Mr Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF Party, claimed queues at some polling stations in Harare on Monday were a deliberate attempt to reduce turnout in traditional strongholds of the opposition MDC Alliance.
"There seems to be a deliberate attempt to suppress and frustrate the Urban vote,” Mr Chamisa wrote on Twitter.
“Good turn out but the people’s will being negated & undetermined due to these deliberate & unnecessary delays.”
There were queues of up to one hour at Harare polling stations visited by the Telegraph.
Polling stations are technically obliged to remain open until all those still in line at 7PM, when polling closes, have voted.
EU chief observer Elmar Brok said many voters left voting queues in frustration at long delays but that it was as yet unclear whether those delays were deliberate or down to poor management.
“In some cases it (voting) works very smoothly but in others we see that it is totally disorganized and that people become angry, people leave,” Mr Brok told reporters in Harare.
Profile | Emmerson Mnangagwa
Voting generally went smoothly and there was no violence reported.
However, several voters said that memories of 2008, when Mr Mugabe unleashed thugs to terrorise MDC activists and supporters, still loomed large.
“I’m glad we voted. We really badly need change,” said a 61-year-old man who cast his ballot in the Harare suburb of Newlands.
“But I don’t want to give you my name or say who I voted for because we don’t know what the repercussions will be afterwards. It would be easy to track me down.”
Zanu-PF have ruled Zimbabwe for 38 years and Mr Mnangagwa's near total dominance in the media makes him the front runner in the election.
He has sought to attract former opposition voters by publicly breaking with Mr Mugabe and promising a “New Dispensation” of democratic and economic reforms.
However, Mr Chamisa has made significant inroads into former Zanu PF strongholds in rural areas and has attracted large crowds at his rallies.
He has said he is certain of victory and that any other outcome could only be the result of vote-rigging by Zanu-PF.
“I am moderately bullish,” said Terence Mukupe, the Zanu-PF candidate for the constituency of Harare East, before casting his vote.
“The MDC vote is split, and the business community, the white community, and the middle classes who used to vote for the opposition have largely switched to ED,” he said, using Mr Mnangagwa’s initials.
But as polls closed on Monday evening there were signs that Mr Chamisa had made inroads into Zanu-PF’s own traditional strongholds.
One 71-year-old grandmother from a village 40 miles north of Harare said she did not vote for Zanu-PF for the first time because she said she now felt “safe” to support the opposition.
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“We….my friends from church like sweet things, and so some of us grandmothers voted for Chamisa,” she laughed.
The election has been dominated by the legacy of Mr Mugabe, with both candidates promising a break with the stagnation and political violence of his rule.
The former dictator, 94, made a surprise intervention on the eve of the election, saying he would not vote for his own Zanu-PF party and hinting that he would back Mr Chamisa instead.
He was cheered when he showed up to vote at his polling station in Highfield, a township on the southern outskirts of Harare, with his wife Grace.
Mrs Mugabe was yesterday stripped of her diplomatic immunity by a court in South Africa, where she is facing allegations of assaulting model Gabriella Engels' with an electrical cord in when she discovered her in the company of her sons in a luxury Johannesburg hotel.
Another observer in Harare who was in contact with groups in other parts of the country, said there had been isolated incidents of voter intimidation.
“So far, and it is too early to make conclusions, there does not seem to have been any pattern or targeted bias. We have heard from colleagues in one or two rural areas - and this needs to be checked - there were some instances of intimidation, but not systemic or as ugly as in the past.”
Mr Mnangagwa called the election a "beautiful expression of freedom and democracy" and called on candidates not to call the result before the electoral commission announces the official outcome.
"In our millions, we voted in the spirit of tolerance, mutual respect & peace," he wrote on Twitter after polling closed.
"Let us remember that no matter which way we voted, we are all brothers and sisters, and this land belongs to us all."