Counting began in Zimbabwe last night in the first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, as observers warned of possible shortcomings in the landmark poll.
The election is a two-horse race between President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, who is Mugabe’s former right-hand man in the ruling Zanu-PF party, and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, 40, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a lawyer and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
Mnangagwa is viewed as the frontrunner, though the latest opinion polls showed a tight race.
“I am not shy to say I voted for Chamisa. He is young and can understand our plight as youth,” Ndumiso Nyoni, 20, a worker at a lodge in Lupane, southern Zimbabwe, said.
There will be a runoff on September 8 if no candidate wins more than half the votes.
Voting closed at 7pm.
The electoral commission’s chair, Priscilla Chigumba, said late on Monday that the turnout averaged 75%, larger than the last vote in 2013.
The official result has to be announced within five days but there will likely be an indication of the outcome on Tuesday.
Previously-banned European Union election observers, present for the first time in years, said participation appeared high but warned of possible shortcomings.
“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, said.
“Overall ,[there was] a huge amount of voting – especially young people, mostly in a very good atmosphere, generally peaceful, which is positive.”
Zimbabweans are also electing 210 MPs and more than 9,000 councillors.
The election winner faces the task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation.
A credible vote is essential if Zimbabwe is to exit painful sanctions and secure the donor funding and investment that is needed to stem chronic cash shortages.
Several international observers said the voting process had been slow at some stations but it did not appear to them to be intentional.
Electoral Network of Southern Africa observer Bishop Paul Verryn said he had visited 15 polling stations and there had been no incidents of violence or intimidation reported.
Verryn said the historic day had been remarkable.
“I know it’s going to sound almost too good to be true, but I was very impressed. It was extremely remarkable, dignified and well-organised,” he said.
“I mean, the only feeling of unhappiness was from the elderly and pregnant women who had been queuing, but other than that there were no incidents.
“We went to the polling stations in the Bulawayo area and were really well received.”
Chamisa said his MDC would win if there was no “ballot mischief”, making it likely he will challenge the outcome if Mnangagwa prevails.
A contested result is likely to lead to street protests and possible violence.
A recent Afrobarometer survey of 2,400 people put Mnangagwa on 40% and Chamisa on 37%, with 20% undecided.
Brok said many voters left voting queues in frustration at long delays.
The EU had not yet concluded how to judge the vote, he said.
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 media 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 and boos after casting his ballot but did not respond to questions about who he had 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.
“I am very happy that the process for campaigning was peaceful [and] voting today is peaceful,” he said.
Elections under Mugabe were often marred by intimidation, rigging and violence but the consensus is the buildup to this vote has been better than before, although Chamisa complained about a flawed voters’ roll and opaque ballot paper printing.
“Victory is certain, the people have spoken,” Chamisa said after casting his ballot in Harare as a cheering crowd chanted: “President! President! The president is here!”
Chamisa has attracted young and unemployed voters frustrated with nearly four decades of Zanu-PF rule.
“I’ll vote for Chamisa because it is a vote for change, it is a vote for the youth,” Fabian Matsika, a security guard in Harare, said earlier.
Elizabeth Kamhunga, 67, said after casting her vote in Harare: “Zanu-PF is the only party that I have voted for.
“We may have made some mistakes but I think President Mnangagwa is the only person who has the interests of Zimbabwe at heart.”
The European Union, the United States and the Commonwealth sent observers.
“It is exciting to see so many Zimbabweans casting ballots,” former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s observer mission, said.
“However, the public’s faith in the secrecy of the ballot is essential for the credibility of the process.”
Mnangagwa has made a big effort to win over foreign opinion, hosting Western ambassadors and courting investors.
“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,” Verisk Maplecrodt analyst Charles Laurie said.
In Harare, finance graduate Tinashe Dongo, 32, said he wanted “change” after the vote.
– Reuters, AFP, additional reporting by Siyabonga Sesant