10/11 March 2002

Zimbabwe vote 'extended'

Zimbabwe's High Court has ruled that the bitterly fought presidential election should continue for a third day, the opposition has said. Eric Matinenga, a lawyer for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said the judge had ordered that an extension be granted "not only for Harare ... but the whole country until close of voting tomorrow." There has been no immediate reaction from the government, but state television said Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa would appeal to the Supreme Court to strike down the ruling.

As the time for the official end of voting passed on Sunday at 19.00 local time, thousands of people were still waiting to cast their ballot. Mr Chinamasa had said those still queuing when polls closed would be allowed to vote, but that any further extension was unnecessary. Some 5.6 million people have been eligible to vote in the election, in which President Robert Mugabe faces a strong challenge to his 22-year rule from MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The election's registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, said that by midday on Sunday, 2.4 million people had cast their vote - less than 50% of those registered. After the MDC asked the High Court to extend voting into Monday, officials from the court flew over the busy areas to assess the scale of the queues. The opposition has alleged that the government has been deliberately slowing the pace of voting in its urban strongholds to boost the chances of Mr Mugabe being re-elected.

Correspondents say last-minute changes to the election laws, changes to the voter register and a reduction in the number of polling stations in urban areas, have slowed the process dramatically. Thousands of urban voters spent long hours in queues on Saturday, and some spent the night outside, waiting for polling stations to re-open on Sunday morning. One station in Harare stayed open all night to cope with the large turnout.

International observers have expressed concern about the delays. Kare Vollan, head of Norway's election observers, said: "There have been queues of thousands of people waiting outside for many hours and with the speed that they started today it is not possible to process all those voters over two days." Despite long queues in Harare, reports suggest voting in other areas is not as brisk. In the second city of Bulawayo, many polling stations were almost deserted on Sunday after a busy first day of voting. And in Manicaland, queues to vote were said to be much shorter than on Saturday, with many polling stations reporting low turnouts by midday.

Government, which had opposed the application by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to extend the election, said later that it would obey the order only in Harare and the nearby Chitungwiza settlement. Patrick Chinamasa, the Justice Minister, was quoted by state radio as saying that polling stations would reopen in the two areas that had the longest queues late last night. "Comrade Chinamasa has said it is impossible to comply with the order to extend the vote nationwide because in some areas, polling has already closed and ballot boxes have already been returned," the radio said. (ZMNews / BBC News, The Times)

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