HARARE — With the moon still out on a chilly winter morning, millions of Zimbabweans lined up to vote on Monday to pick their first elected leader after 37 years of rule by Robert Mugabe ended last year.
The results — expected to be announced later this week — will be a referendum on the country’s course since Mugabe’s ouster last November.
Voters will determine whether Zimbabwe will stick with the 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took the presidency after Mugabe’s fall, or look to a new generation and make 40-year-old activist-turned-politician Nelson Chamisa the youngest president in Africa.
The election is widely seen as a chance for Zimbabwe to embark on a different path, more in step with a democratizing region and a globalizing economy.
The United States and European Union have been clear that a credible election is the foremost condition for the lifting of sanctions on various Mugabe-era officials and their family members, as well as securing a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
As of Monday morning, initial voting had taken place with few reports of irregularities, though opposition and civil rights groups have documented widespread state-sponsored intimidation and vote-buying.
With 23 candidates on the ballot, polls suggest that the two front-runners may fall short of the 50 percent needed for outright victory. That would force a two-man runoff on Sept. 8.
The two candidates have promised the same basic things: foreign investment, jobs and dignity. But their vastly different backgrounds underscore very distinct appeals.
Mnangagwa is a member of the ruling party’s old guard. Like Mugabe, he has bona fides from Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against white rule in the 1970s. For decades, he served in Mugabe’s Cabinet, and is accused of being closely involved in some of his worst abuses of power, including a genocide in the 1980s, repeated election-rigging, and often-brutal political violence.
With Mugabe’s popularity and the economy in a downward spiral, Mnangagwa collaborated with the military to force the 94-year-old to resign in November. He became president and the army’s top general his deputy. While he has trumpeted his ability to transform Zimbabwe, gradual change is what he would ensure.
Chamisa, 40, was barely a toddler when Zimbabwe gained independence. He would be Africa’s youngest president, joining a slowly growing group of reformers at the helm of the continent’s giant youth bulge.
He led chaotic anti-Mugabe protests in 1999, and joined the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, which became Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. He quickly rose through its ranks and became its president when its longtime leader died of cancer in February. While operating on a small budget, his party has managed to draw giant crowds to rallies, which was once unthinkable for the party.
“We are like oil and water,” Chamisa said of Mnangagwa in an interview with The Post. “I am the water. I am the clear break with the past.”
Both men have attracted fervent support, bordering on the militant. Both have told their supporters that victory is assured, setting the stage for a disputed result whichever way it goes.
“We are 120 percent behind E.D. He is the father of a new Zimbabwe,” said Sandra Manyika, who attended Mnangagwa’s final rally on Saturday along with tens of thousands of others at the National Sports Stadium. Mnangagwa is widely referred to by his first two initials, E.D. “He has brought us a second independence. Nothing can stop that.”
While Mnangagwa’s supporters generally exuded confidence, Chamisa’s were filled with yearning. Many of them are young and jobless. At least 1 million Zimbabweans have migrated to neighboring South Africa in search of work. Astronomical inflation led Mugabe to ditch the national currency in 2009 for the U.S. dollar, which is in very short supply here.
“I cannot live my whole life in this kind of Zimbabwe,” said Earnest Kudzayi, a student who added that he was not scared to speak openly about supporting Chamisa. “Mugabe suffocated us and E.D. will do the same.”
While Monday’s voting has been peaceful, underlying tensions could spark violence. Chamisa has already alleged that the vote is not credible and that the independent election commission is acting on the ruling party’s behalf. He has said that his supporters “know what to do” if Mnangagwa wins.
Speaking off the record, diplomats and international election observers said their concerns are focused on the crucial period while the results are being tabulated. Should there be reports, true or not, of electoral manipulation, confrontations between ZANU-PF and MDC supporters could get out of control, or the candidates themselves could foment conflict.
On Sunday, on the eve of the election, Mugabe inserted himself into the campaign for the first time. In an extraordinary news conference, he denounced ZANU-PF, which he founded, and implied that he would vote for Chamisa.
Mnangagwa quickly disseminated a video claiming that Mugabe and Chamisa had “forged a deal.”
“You either vote for Mugabe under the guise of Chamisa or you vote for a new Zimbabwe under my leadership,” he said. Both Mugabe and Chamisa denied that they had ever spoken.
A stamp of approval from international observers is unlikely as the pre-election period has shown both improvements over the Mugabe years as well as remnants of the authoritarian system he put in place. There are clear signs of greater freedom of expression, but polls show that trust in the election’s credibility is highly polarized.
“There comes a time when a country gets an opportunity for a sharp departure from the past,” said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former president of Liberia and lead observer for the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, who monitored voting at a school on Monday morning.
“Only a fairly free election can provide that. In Zimbabwe, and in Africa, this is desperately needed.”