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Polling Stations to Open for 3rd Day in Zimbabwe - 2002-03-10

A Zimbabwean court has ordered the government to keep polling stations open for another day. There is much confusion among voters and election officials about what to do next.

Voters flocked to the polls in massive numbers on Saturday and Sunday. But the process went so slowly in Harare that, according to the registrar general, less than 10 percent of Harare's 800,000 registered voters had actually cast their ballots by mid-day Sunday.

The process is slower in the capital than elsewhere because voters are choosing not just a president, but a mayor and members of the city council. More importantly, the number of polling stations in Harare has been cut in half since the last elections, two years ago.

There are an nearly six million registered voters in Zimbabwe. The registrar-general says less than 2.5 million had voted by mid-day Sunday.

In Harare, thousands of people continued to wait in line after the polls were scheduled to close. A crowd of about 500 would-be voters has just been told their polling station is closed for the night. They have been ordered to go home.

About 20 heavily armed riot police stand not far away. Behind them, another 30 or so police officers hold AK-47's and batons.

The presiding officer at the polling station tells reporters she and her staff are tired. They have been working for two days straight, without sleep and with very little food.

They tell the voters to come back Monday. The crowd does not want to hear it. They suspect it is a trick. One voter said, "If you come back tomorrow morning, they won't allow us to vote. Because they will be closed, they will be gone. So there is no way we can vote tomorrow morning. Yeah, of course we are going to try. Actually, we wanted to sleep here, but they told us to go home and come back tomorrow morning."

Many of these voters have been waiting in line since early Saturday morning. They are angry at the slow pace of the voting.

They are also frightened. A group of four foreign journalists is watching, and members of the crowd say the police will probably beat them up if the reporters leave.

Reports come streaming in of similar incidents at other polling stations. Police are said to have beaten up and dispersed voters all over the city.

It all started happening shortly after seven o'clock local time, when the polls were scheduled to close. Thousands of people remained in line at many polling places.

Initially, election officials said anybody who was in line at seven would be allowed to vote. Polling stations were to remain open until all the lines had been cleared.

But then the High Court ordered the government to extend the voting period in Harare and the nearby city of Chitungwiza, where polling stations have been totally overwhelmed by the number of voters. The court said the polls should remain open Monday.