Election pits 75-year-old president Emmerson Mnangagwa against 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa.
Polls have opened in Zimbabwe’s first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed vote that will determine the former British colony’s future for decades.
Voting began at 7am (0500 GMT) and will end at 7pm.
About 5.5 million people are registered to vote in the nation anxious for change after decades of economic paralysis and the nearly four-decade rule of the 94-year-old Mugabe. Long lines of voters were waiting outside some polling stations.
“I just have to do this. I have to see a better Zimbabwe for my kids. Things have been tough,” Tawanda Petru, 28, an unemployed man voting in Mbare, a low-income district of the capital Harare, said.
“I’m excited, I’m voting for the first time,” said Tawanda Mudondo, 18, who sells phone chargers on the street corner.
“I just want a government that will create jobs. I passed my exams but could not go to university. Our economy is trashed.”
In an astonishing intervention on Sunday, Mugabe said he would not vote for his former party Zanu-PF or the current president. Zimbabwe’s generals shocked the world last year when they seized control and ushered Mnangagwa to power after Mugabe allegedly tried to position his wife Grace to be his successor.
In his first major statement since being ousted by the military last November, Mugabe told reporters in Harare he would be voting for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country’s biggest opposition party, and its candidate Chamisa.
“I cannot vote for the party or those in power who caused me to be in this condition. I cannot vote for them, I can’t,” Mugabe said at a hastily called, chaotic press conference in the garden of his sprawling home. “[Chamisa] seems to be doing well at his rallies … I wish to meet him if he wins. Whoever wins, we wish him well … And let us accept the verdict.”
Polls give Mnangagwa, a dour former spy chief and aide of Mugabe known as “the Crocodile” for his reputation for ruthless cunning, a slim lead over Chamisa, a brilliant if sometimes wayward orator. If no candidate wins more than half the votes there will be a runoff on 8 September.
A rally on Saturday was supposedly the climax of the Zanu-PF campaign – but it cannot have reassured party strategists. Even with the considerable organisational power of the party fully deployed, the stadium was far from full, applause was desultory, and hundreds were pouring through the exits before the president’s speech was over.
The opposition is confident of victory. At a noisy rally last week in Chitungwiza, a satellite town of Harare, Chamisa told supporters the stakes were high. The “elderly” Mnangagwa should step aside for a new generation and a new style of politics, Chamisa told the Observer as he came down from the podium. “Zimbabwe does not need a big man,” he said – a reference to the autocrats across Africa who rule for decades – but “a big idea”.
The desire for change is understandable. Zimbabwe’s economy is shattered; its infrastructure in deep disrepair. The country has enormous debts, soaring unemployment, massive poverty and no working currency of its own. Most of the population have only ever known Zanu-PF in charge.
But Chamisa has his flaws: a series of spectacular pledges, such as bringing the Olympics and the World Cup to Zimbabwe, or a 600km/hr bullet train, have prompted derision, while early gaffes prompted outrage. In one interview, Chamisa said he would offer his 18-year-old sister to Mnangagwa in marriage if Zanu-PF won 5% in a free election.
Zimbabwe’s rulers know that a fraudulent poll would block the reintegration of Zimbabwe into the international community and deny them the huge bailout package needed to avoid economic meltdown.
“This is a critical moment in Zimbabwe’s democratic journey,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Liberian president and a leader of one of the international observer missions.
“The elections today provide an opportunity to break with the past,” Sirleaf said at a polling station in a school in Harare. “The lines and voter enthusiasm we are seeing this morning must be matched by an accurate count and their choice must be honored.”