What is all the fuss about?
This is the first time since 1980 (independence), that Zimbabweans go to the polls without Robert Mugabe as the front-runner.
In November last year, the military forced him to step down in a coup-like way and Emmerson Mnangagwa (who used to be one of Mugabe’s closest allies) was sworn in as the new president. Despite accusations of human rights abuses and corruption, Mnangagwa has vowed to make these polls free and fair. But has he really broken with his past? When Mnangagwa named his first government key cabinet posts were given to military figures and many fear that the military has an extended influence over the way Zimbabwe is, and maybe will be, ruled.
Looking at the contenders, the largest and most influential opposition party has lost its figurehead to cancer. Morgan Tsvangirai whom, for almost 20 years, embodied the fight against Mugabe and his Zanu-PF past away in February this year. The new MDC-leader Nelson Chamisa has formed an alliance of seven parties and hopes to become the youngest president the country has ever had. At the age of 40, one would guess that Chamisa (who became an MP at 25) will attract far more young voters than the 75-year-old Mnangagwa. So, both front-runners are contesting the presidential election for the first time.
Will the elections be free and fair?
Too early to say. The opposition and civil society have complained that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is bias towards Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF. There have also been reports of voter intimidation and threats of violence, especially in the rural areas. Adding to that are complaints about flawed electoral rolls, ballot paper malpractice and food-handouts by the ruling party.
Having said that, over all the campaign has been peaceful and many observers say that the conditions for the opposition has improved compared to past elections. The MDC-alliance has held several mass-rallies in rural areas where they were barred to operate under Mugabe’s rule.
Another positive note, Mnangagwa has, contrary to his predecessor Mugabe, opened the doors to foreign voter observer organisations including the EU, the Carter Center and the Commonwealth.
According to opinion polls the gap between Zanu-PF and the MDC-alliance has narrowed substantially and Chamisa will most likely challenge the result should ZEC call Mnangagwa the winner in the first round.
If no candidate secures 50% of the votes in today’s elections there will be a run-off on September 8.
What does the electorate look like?
5.6 million Zimbabweans will go to the polls during the day and the turnout is expected to be high. 43.5% of the registered voters are under 35 and were born after independence.
The electorate will cast their votes in presidential, parliamentary and local elections. There are 23 candidates on the presidential ballot but only two have any chance of reaching a run-off. According to the latest opinion polls Mnangagwa was in the leas with a slim margin but 20% haven’t decided, or didn’t want to disclose, their choice for president.
The polling stations (almost 11,000) opened at 7 am and according to several reports Zimbabweans started to form long lines hours before sunrise.