Maputo: Mozambicans voted Wednesday in a tough electoral test for the ruling Frelimo party, which has run the resource-rich but impoverished southern African country since independence from Portugal in 1975.
Voters in neat lines started casting their ballots in the capital Maputo shortly after 7 am (0500 GMT), with Frelimo facing growing discontent amid an apparent popular swing towards the opposition.
"We want change. We want to choose a new, young leader," said student Erisma Invasse, who was queueing at the Polana secondary school in an upmarket suburb.
"We want someone with new ideas," agreed her friend, Raina Muaria. Both are voting for the first time in presidential elections.
The presidential race pits Frelimo`s Filipe Nyusi, 55, the former defence minister, against the veteran leader of former rebel group Renamo, Afonso Dhlakama, 61.
Also in the running is Daviz Simango, 50, founder of the Mozambique Democratic Party (MDM).
"I am convinced of a victory," Nyusi told reporters after casting his ballot. "We have worked for a long time, very hard to prepare for this election."
Dhlakama, who voted at the same polling station, has cried foul each time he lost in previous elections but expressed hope that this vote will be free and fair.
"Results will be accepted when they are clean. As you know on the African continent, results are often not clean," he said.
"We hope for the first time in Mozambique results will be acceptable, proper and with credibility. I believe this."
The government amended election laws earlier this year as part of peace negotiations with Renamo, which demanded that the opposition be given greater control over the electoral process in bid to improve transparency.
The third presidential aspirant, Simango, voted in the second biggest city Beira, where he is mayor.
Voter surveys cannot be published in Mozambique, but judging from the turnout at some campaign rallies, Frelimo could be in for a shock.
The party`s glitzy final rally in its southern fiefdom of Maputo failed to attract a capacity crowd.
Twenty-seven parties and two coalitions are competing for the favour of 10.9 million registered voters in the presidential race, plus polls for national and provincial assemblies.
Analysts say that while Frelimo is expected to win the election, the opposition is likely to make significant inroads, reducing the ruling party`s overwhelming majority of 75 percent garnered in the last vote.
The desire for change has been driven by a wealth gap that persists despite huge mineral resources, with fast economic growth sidestepping the bulk of a population that is among the world`s poorest.
Renamo, which has lost all elections since the end of the country`s 16-year civil war in 1992, has made a comeback, trying to spruce up its image after emerging from a low-level insurgency waged in the centre of the country just weeks ahead of the election.
"The recent (September 5) peace agreement is an opportunity for Renamo," said Nelson Alusala, a researcher with the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies.
"Mozambicans may be attracted to Renamo for the simple reason of wanting change," he said.
At the same time the fledgling MDM, led by the mayor of the second largest city of Beira, is gaining popularity.
Formed five years ago, the MDM gained around 40 percent of the vote in Maputo in last December`s municipal elections.
If none of the three garners more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held within 30 days after official final results.
Official results are expected 15 days after polling.