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Few Turn Up at Many Rural Polling Stations in Zimbabwean Vote

The polls are closing in Zimbabwe after elections to determine the future of longtime President Robert Mugabe. Peta Thornycroft reports from the capital, Harare, that voting was largely peaceful but few voters turned up at many rural polling stations, and one person was killed in apparent political violence.

Many voters in Harare lined up at polling stations hours before the polls opened on Saturday morning. They remembered the last presidential election, in 2002, when some voters never got to cast their votes.

For the first time, people are voting for a new president, parliament, senate and local government councils simultaneously. Two opposition candidates - Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change and Simba Makoni, an independent - are challenging Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled the country since 1980.

One voter in Mbare, a high density suburb of Harare, said he remembered the last presidential election and how he queued most of the day before he could vote. He said it was much easier this time. "In 2002, there was only one polling station here. I waked up at 6.30 and then I went to vote at 4 pm," he said.

He said this time, he voted within 90 minutes.

Other voters in Mbare said they were voting for change to ease their poverty and for a better life for their children. Zimbabwe has been suffering from runaway inflation that has reached above 100,000 percent. "We are looking for change....No teachers, no food for breakfast," said one voter.

The independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network says that voter turnout has been good so far.

However, some commentators said they were surprised to see that so few voters lined up in rural areas where 60 percent of the population lives.

Substantial numbers of voters were turned away, perhaps as much as 15 percent, said one independent election observer Saturday.

The opposition to Mr. Mugabe has said it expects widespread rigging. But Mr. Mugabe has said his conscience does not allow him to cheat.

A young man in Mbare said his name was not on the voters' roll, but he still believed he would be allowed to vote before the end of the day. "I ws not able to vote. I registered at harare High School. They are telling me I must register today and vote," he said.

The day was marred by two apparent acts of political violence. The dead person in Insiza, in rural Matabeleland province, was apparently a member of the public who was killed by a moving vehicle. The vehicle, according to the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, may have been shot at.

In the city of Bulawayo, a bomb went off at the home of a ruling party parliamentary candidate. No injuries were reported.

Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, said it is too early to say whether the elections have been free and fair. He said that the counting of votes, not the actual voting, could pose problems. "It is quite clear, from a technical aspect, people have freely gone to polling stations and voted. As in past elections, there is very little problem on voting day. The problem issues come at counting and tabulation, and we will wait and see how that happens when the polls have closed," he said.

He said as far as he knew counting would begin immediately after the polls close on Saturday.