Polls have opened in Zimbabwe as President Emmerson Mnangagwa seeks a second and final term in a country with a history of violent and disputed votes.
The elections, being held on Wednesday, are the second since the removal 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 “crocodile”, and 45-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. Mnangagwa narrowly beat Chamisa in a disputed election in 2018.
Chamisa hopes to break the governing 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 run-off election will be held on October 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 at 7am, 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.”
Delays in getting the council ballots to the station have caused delays at polling stations in Cowdray Park constituency, the largest voting area in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-biggest city. The industrial city is traditionally an opposition stronghold but the ZANU-PF is hoping to make inroads there.
According to the presiding officer at the Cowdray Park polling station, the council ballots are expected to be delivered separately and this was the reason for delay at some polling stations.
At the Maunga shopping centre in Emakhandeni suburb – one of the high-density areas in Cowdray Park – a line of early-morning voters expressed their unhappiness at the delay.
Paul Nkomo, a trader and local resident told Al Jazeera he was annoyed by the late start.
“When they opened here at 7am, they told us everything is in order but now we’ve been waiting and nothing is happening. We’ve lost an hour so are we going to get it back because my vote is important, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” he said.
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.
The economic crisis is one of the key concerns for voters as the country has one of the world’s highest rates of inflation which has led to prices of basic goods increasing at a rate many struggle to keep up with.
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 weakening public health system and inadequacy of formal jobs.
Mnangagwa was a close ally of Mugabe and served as vice president before a fallout before 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 European Union sanctions for the past two decades over allegations of human rights abuses, charges denied by the governing party. Mnangagwa has in recent years repeated much of Mugabe’s rhetoric against the West, accusing it of seeking to topple his government.
Ahead of elections, observers from the EU and the US have come under criticism from officials and state-run media for allegedly being biased against the governing party.
The Carter Centre, 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 and foreign journalists including five from Al Jazeera, were also denied accreditation.
On Tuesday, internet services were degraded on multiple network providers, according to a post by cybersecurity watchdog NetBlocks on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
⚠️ Confirmed: Metrics indicate that internet service has been degraded in #Zimbabwe on the eve of elections; the incident impacts online platforms on NetOne, Econet, TelOne and Liquid, potentially affecting citizens’ ability to stay informed
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) August 22, 2023
The action was the 7th such internet restriction in Zimbabwe since 2015, Netherlands-based VPN Surfshark told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
“The internet stands as an indispensable component of democratic elections, enabling individuals to readily access information from diverse sources … in instances where the internet is either fully shut down or just restricted, the integrity of the election process is put in jeopardy,” said Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske, Surfshark’spokesperson.
‘Determined to vote’
On election day, flyers discouraging people not to cast their votes were also seen along the main streets leading to the high-density neighbourhoods in Bulawayo. The flyers have the face of presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa and the yellow emblem of the CCC.
Ladi Ndlovu, a vendor at the bus terminus, thought the flyers were real.
“I was in the queue at St Patrick’s School but I got out of the line when I saw this message. I thought the vote was cancelled because I want to vote Chamisa,” he told Al Jazeera.
David Coltart of the CCC who is running for a council seat in the hopes of being elected mayor dismissed the flyers as a political trick.
“These flyers were printed by ZANU-PF trying to deter people from voting,” the former education minister told Al Jazeera. “It’s an indication of their worry and fear of losing, but the people are no longer afraid.
“People are determined to vote, despite the delays and the setbacks because they are fed up with the economic crisis and the corruption in this country,” he said over the phone.
Additional reporting by Tendai Marima from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.