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Zimbabweans Vote to Elect President - 2002-03-09

Zimbabweans went to the polls Saturday to vote in the country's hotly contested presidential elections. Violence flared at some polling stations in Harare as voters lost patience with long, slow-moving lines at polling stations.

Many Harare voters believe the government has intentionally cut back on the number of polling stations in the city to make it as hard for them to vote as possible.

Harare is a stronghold of support for opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. He is posing a stiff challenge to incumbent President Robert Mugabe, whose support is stronger in rural areas.

Some Harare voters waited in line for more than 13 hours, and by the time the polls were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. local time, they were still nowhere near the front of the line.

There were numerous reports of violence and intimidation around the city. Several voters told VOA they were threatened by ruling-party militants after they were spotted talking to Western reporters.

At one polling station in the impoverished suburb of Kuwadzana, clashes erupted between police and would-be voters at the front of the line. Authorities say people were trying to force their way into the polling station, but witnesses in the crowd blame the violence on the police.

"Right in the front there, there was commotion and they started hitting people," said a voter. "And even they fired some shots, warning shots, we are not sure."

According to Red Cross officials, roughly 20 people were injured and three were taken to the hospital.

By the time the polling station was schedule to close, fewer than 900 voters had cast their ballots and roughly 3,000 people remained in line. Many who were still waiting had been drinking alcohol as they stood in the hot sun all day, and they were both angry and intoxicated by nightfall.

The presiding officer admitted to reporters she was afraid of what the crowd might do if she tried to shut down the polling station for the night. She decided she would keep it open until her superiors ordered her to stop allowing people to vote.

Many of the voters in Kuwadzana said they would be willing to wait all night and on to Monday or Tuesday in order to cast their ballots.

"We are prepared to engage in civil disobedience if we don't exercise our legitimate right to vote," says a man.

"We will wait, if they even extend to midnight, we will be here," says another one.

"Even 12 p.m! Tomorrow morning!" adds a woman.

Another man says, "We won't sleep for two consecutive nights, we are prepared! Scarcity of food we have dealt with for the last six months. We don't care, we want to vote!"

At another polling station, voting continued by candlelight long past the scheduled closing time. The presiding officer there told VOA he was waiting for police backup before he started turning voters away.

There are several reasons why voting lines were longer in Harare than in much of the rest of the country. First, the capital is holding three separate elections - for president, mayor and city council. That means each voter has to have his or her name checked on two different voters' rolls and fill out three different ballot papers. That takes more time.

Second, there are fewer polling stations in the urban areas than there are in rural ones. Many Harare polling centers used in previous elections have been shut down.

Many of the voters in Kuwadzana openly expressed their support for the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC. They believe President Mugabe cut back on the numbers of polling stations intentionally, to keep them from voting for his opponent.

"The very fact that they have been frustrating us since morning speaks volumes of how he wants to rig the votes, how he doesn't want the winds of change, how he wants to hold onto power," says a voter. "And we cannot tolerate that. Remember, when the people say we want change now, it should be given today!"

When VOA visited the rural area of Bindura, about 100 kilometers north of Harare, things were proceeding much more smoothly than they did in the capital. The area is considered a stronghold of support for President Mugabe. A local election official said there were 45 polling stations in the Bindura constituency, for about 53,000 voters.

Kuwadzana constituency, an MDC stronghold, has less than 10 polling stations for 55,000 voters.

Voters can go back to the polls on Sunday, but the lines will have to move much faster if these elections are to finish on time. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa says the government will consider extending the voting period past Sunday if necessary.