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Zimbabweans Vote for President Amid Intimidation - 2002-03-09

Voting is under way in Zimbabwe's presidential election. Hundreds of people were lining up to cast their ballots before the polling stations even opened.

More than 500 people were already in line outside one polling station in the township of Mbare by the time the polls opened just after 7:00 a.m. local time (0500 UTC).

Half an hour later, the line was even longer, over 600, and more people were arriving in a steady stream from the surrounding neighborhood.

The first man in line had been waiting since three in the morning. Behind him, another man said he had arrived at 4:20 a.m. local time, and did not mind waiting even longer. He said it is important for Zimbabweans to vote.

"As a safeguard to democracy. If we continued with voter apathy, then no one would do something for us, even though we may be complaining about the kind of world we are living in," he said. "But in order to have a government of our choice and leader who are representative of our interests, we have to vote."

Voters are going to the polls to choose a new president. Incumbent President Robert Mugabe faces a stiff challenge from Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

At the polling station in Mbare, the atmosphere was quiet but tense as voters filed in to cast their ballots. The neighborhood has been troubled by violence over the last few weeks, and many opposition supporters there report having been beaten up by supporters of the ruling party, ZANU PF.

VOA witnessed what appeared to be a blatant act of intimidation on the part of the ruling party. As a VOA reporter interviewed a woman in line, a female ZANU PF polling agent walked up to the woman, slapped her across the face, and walked away without saying a word.

The whole incident was caught on tape. "I have to vote," the woman told VOA reporter Challiss McDonough. "I have to vote. That's my right. Yes," she said as a man interrupted her, slapping her face. The VOA Reporter asked, "Why did she hit you?" The woman answered, "I don't know. But it's my right to vote."

When two American reporters approached the ZANU PF polling agent, she refused to speak to them or tell them why she slapped the woman in line.

It is therefore probably no surprise that none of the people interviewed by VOA were willing to say who they planned to vote for.

First Man: "No! No. It's confidential. It's private and confidential."
First Woman: "Ah, that's my secret. Your vote is a secret. Yes."
Second Man: "Oh, no, I can't say. It's my secret, yes," he said laughing.
Second Woman: "It's my secret again."
Second Man: "Whilst I am alone there, I will do whatever is needed to be done inside there."
Third Man: "It's a secret! We will tell in the balloting box, you know," he said laughing.

At a different polling station later in the day, VOA again saw evidence of intimidation. The line - more than 800 people long - wound through a soccer field toward the tent where voting was taking place. About 20 young men hung out of the windows of a building next door, watching everything closely.

People in line told reporters those young men belong to the ZANU PF youth brigade that has been terrorizing opposition supporters for weeks.

But the voters also insisted they would cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice, no matter who was watching as they did so.

Despite the obvious tension at both polling stations, things appeared to be proceeding peacefully, if somewhat slowly. Voting continues on Sunday, and it may be several days after that before the results are announced.