, HARARE, Aug 1 – Vote counting was underway in Zimbabwe’s tightly fought election Wednesday, amid high turnout and accusations of rigging by President Robert Mugabe’s allies who wish to extend his 33-year rule.
The 89-year-old Mugabe is Africa’s oldest leader and is running for office for the seventh and perhaps final time.
His rival Morgan Tsvangirai hopes the election will usher in a new era for the troubled southern African nation.
Organisers reported high turnout across the country for the first election since the violent polls of 2008, that led to an uneasy power-sharing government between the two men.
There were no reports of widespread violence this time round, despite the fierce rhetoric of the campaign.
Police said officers in Harare fired warning shots in the air and arrested 10 soldiers who tried to jump the queue to vote.
At many stations voters started queueing before sunrise in the winter cold hours before polls opened. The lines continued well into the evening, with many marking their ballots by candle light.
Mugabe voted before lunchtime in a Harare suburb, where he insisted the poll would reflect the will of the people.
“I am sure people will vote freely and fairly, there is no pressure being exerted on anyone,” he said.
The one-time teacher came to prominence as a hero of Africa’s liberation movement, guiding Zimbabwe to independence from Britain and white minority rule.
But his military-backed rule has been marked by a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections that have brought international sanctions and made him a pariah in the West.
On Tuesday Mugabe vowed to step down if Tsvangirai was the victor. “If you lose you must surrender,” he said.
Tsvangirai, the current prime minister, said that promise should be taken “with a pinch of salt”.
Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed attacks.
But the 61-year-old former union boss has repeatedly voiced concerns that the election is being rigged.
Tsvangirai’s party on Wednesday listed a battery of alleged irregularities.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a senior member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, said the names of thousands of voters were missing from the electoral roll.