9 March 2002

Polls open for presidential election

Polls opened Saturday, March 9, in Zimbabwe's historic presidential election pitting longtime ruler Robert Mugabe against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai after an acrimonious, violence-wracked campaign. Polls opened at 7:00 am under a light drizzle in Harare, where long lines had formed outside polling stations. Some voters had queued since 3:00 am. "Time is very important today," one young woman said at a polling station set up in a tent by the normally bustling Mbare market, closed on polling day. "I don't want to spend time in the queue." Hundreds of people were waiting in the queue. "It's raining, but I'm happy because I know what I'm doing, I'm voting," a woman voter said. The urban vote is thought to favor Tsvangirai, who poses the most formidable challenge ever to Mugabe's 22-year rule, with rights groups and the independent press saying the former union boss could win if the vote is free and fair. At the David Livingston School in Harare, some 150 people had lined up before polling opened including more than a dozen white voters, mainly elderly. "We want positive results," one voter said. "We want change even if it won't be a fair election." An MDC activist at the polling station said: "We hope that people will be brave enough to bring about change."

The vote caps a campaign that has seen at least 33 people killed in political violence, according to rights groups, and legal wrangling up to final hours as the opposition challenged last-minute changes by Mugabe to the electoral rules. As election day dawned, the MDC had still not obtained the accreditation of most of its polling agents, and had not been allowed to see the final voters' roll. The conditions ahead of the polling drew sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle from the European Union and the United States. The election comes as the vast majority of Zimbabweans are caught up in an unprecedented economic crisis marked by an inflation rate nearing 120 percent, 60 percent unemployment and chronic food shortages in a country that was once a regional breadbasket. Four in five Zimbabweans live below the poverty level. Mugabe's answer to the longstanding crisis has been his campaign to redistribute white-owned farmland to marginalized blacks, a message that has been politicized since legislative elections in 2000 and has taken on a full-blown anti-white dimension in the presidential campaign. (ZW News)

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