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Zimbabweans Vote Peacefully in First Election Since Mugabe’s Fall

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Millions of Zimbabweans cast ballots Monday in a general election that many hoped would earn the endorsement of Western governments and win economic assistance needed to repair decades of misrule under Robert Mugabe.

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Norimitsu Onishi
, New York Times

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Millions of Zimbabweans cast ballots Monday in a general election that many hoped would earn the endorsement of Western governments and win economic assistance needed to repair decades of misrule under Robert Mugabe.

Long lines of enthusiastic voters formed at polling stations on the outskirts of Harare, the capital, before voting began at 7 a.m., following a peaceful campaign without the widespread violence, intimidation and fraud of previous elections. Election observers from Europe and the United States, long barred by Mugabe, joined local organizations in monitoring the vote.

“The election is OK; it’s taking place peacefully so far,” said Nyasha Simbo, who had just voted in Westlea, a middle-class neighborhood where the opposition has long had support. In the past two elections, Simbo added, she had sheltered friends fleeing violence at the hands of the ruling ZANU-PF party and police.

The race for the top position — pitting President Emmerson Mnangagwa against the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa — was considered too close to call. Both candidates campaigned on pledges to improve the economy, create jobs and attract foreign investment.

By midday, voting appeared to be going peacefully and turnout seemed high nationwide, according to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a private Zimbabwean organization that has deployed 6,500 observers across the country.

“We have yet to receive the kind of reports of problems we used to get by this time from the rural constituencies,” said Andrew Makoni, the organization’s chairman.

Makoni added that he was receiving word of trouble with voter rolls — people incapable of voting because they had not been registered, or registered at different locations. But he added that it was too soon to say how widespread the problems were, and whether they resulted from logistical issues or fraud.

For Mnangagwa, 75, who rose to power after Mugabe was forced out in November, the vote presented an opportunity to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the Western officials he has assiduously courted.

Though Mnangagwa served for decades as Mugabe’s enforcer, including orchestrating the rigging of previous elections, he has presented himself as a break from the past — a pragmatist eager to mend relations with the West and make Zimbabwe business friendly.

For Chamisa, 40, the election was a chance to fulfill the goal of his predecessor, Morgan Tsvangirai, who died this year, to dislodge ZANU-PF, in power since liberation from white-minority rule in 1980. Chamisa earned recognition for his tenure as minister of information, communication and technology in a government of national unity between 2009 and 2013.

After Tsvangirai’s death, Chamisa outmaneuvered rivals to become head of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance.

Western governments have made clear that a free and fair election was a precondition for the possible resumption of desperately sought loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international creditors.

Zimbabwe became a pariah in the eyes of Western nations in the early 2000s, after Mugabe championed the violent seizure of farms owned by the descendants of white settlers. Despite Mugabe’s attempts to cultivate China as an alternative source of assistance, Zimbabwe’s economy has continued to disintegrate in recent years.

Today, Zimbabwe does not have its own currency. The lack of a physical supply of U.S. dollars and a parallel so-called bond note has created a disorientating reality: Digital cash has become widespread in the capital while many in rural areas are resorting to barter.

In the months leading to the election, opposition parties were allowed to campaign in ZANU-PF’s rural strongholds and other areas where they had previously faced harassment and violence. Election observers said that intimidation of rural voters had greatly decreased.

But observers and opposition parties also pointed out problems, especially with the integrity of the voter rolls. Government election officials refused to provide a full accounting of how the rolls were compiled, arguing that the law did not oblige them to do so. That has raised suspicion among many voters who — given the history of vote-rigging by ZANU-PF and the central role played by Mnangagwa — assumed that fraud was taking place.

“They might capitalize on the gray areas of the electoral act to do shady things,” Tonderai Mapfumo, 23, said of the government’s handling of the voter rolls as he walked into a polling station at a primary school.

Still, an election season that compared favorably to previous ones has left many voters optimistic about Zimbabwe’s future.

“I think it brings sanity in the country,” said Kennedy Taonangoro, a banker who was preparing to vote early in the morning. “I think it will give a new direction.”

Results were expected later this week. If no presidential candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes, a runoff is expected to take place in early September.

On Monday, in a midday news conference, election officials said they had reported two presidential candidates to police for violating the electoral act. Though they refused to identify the candidates, they appeared to be referring to Mnangagwa and Chamisa — both of whom made political statements Sunday, a day after campaigning had officially ended.

Both candidates spoke publicly after Mugabe unexpectedly called a news conference at his home, where he announced he would vote against Mnangagwa and indicated a preference for Chamisa. In a video statement, Mnangagwa said voting for Chamisa was tantamount to voting for Mugabe. As for Chamisa, he had to distance himself from the apparent endorsement by Mugabe. In recent weeks, there appeared to be an unusual rapprochement between Mugabe and Chamisa, who spoke favorably of the former president on a few occasions.

In the endless topsy-turvy infighting and repositioning among Zimbabwe’s political elites, the ZANU-PF faction that lost to Mnangagwa last November — led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and a former education minister, Jonathan Moyo — declared its support for Chamisa, the leader of the group that has long opposed ZANU-PF.

“Vote for Chamisa,” Moyo, who is believed to be in exile in Kenya, tweeted Monday morning.

The day before, at Mugabe’s news conference, as the 94-year-old former president slouched in his chair and spoke in a feeble voice, his wife instructed him to repeat his support for Chamisa. “Say that again,” she told him at least twice.

But voters Monday dismissed the never-ending political intrigue.

“I don’t care about that,” said Desmond Danga, who was voting for the first time. “I just want the economy to get better.”

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