Harare: Zimbabweans voted in large numbers on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting veteran President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has vowed to push Africa`s oldest leader into retirement after 33 years in power.
With no reliable opinion polls and amid allegations of vote-rigging, it is hard to say whether Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to oust 89-year-old Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.
Both sides are forecasting landslide wins. In a country with a history of election violence the big question is whether the loser will accept the result of a poll dogged by logistical problems and reports of intimidation and irregularities.
Mugabe, who rejects past and present charges from critics of vote-fixing and intimidation by his ZANU-PF party supporters, has said he will concede if defeated.
"I`m sure people will vote freely and fairly," he told reporters after casting his ballot in a school in Harare`s Highfields township.
"There`s no pressure being exerted on anyone."
Polls opened on time at 0500 GMT (1:00 am EDT), with long queues of people braving unseasonably cold weather to stand in line from well before dawn.
At one polling station in the eastern province of Manicaland, a key swing region, the queue of voters, many wrapped up in blankets, stretched for a kilometre (half a mile).
"Way to change"
The Election Commission said nationwide turnout was high, but with no breakdown between urban and rural areas it is impossible to say whether this will benefit Mugabe or his 61-year-old challenger.
In Harare, the epicentre of support for Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, the mood was upbeat.
"We are here to vote and I`m convinced Harare will lead the way to change," John Phiri, a house cleaner in his 30s, said in a polling station in the upmarket Mount Pleasant suburb.
Casting his vote at a Harare high school, Tsvangirai said he expected to win "quite resoundingly".
Around 6.4 million people, or half the population, are registered to vote. Results are expected well within a five-day deadline intended to prevent a repeat of problems seen in the last election in 2008, when big delays led to serious violence.
The threat of unrest remains at the back of people`s minds but the atmosphere has been markedly lighter than five years ago, with both party leaders preaching peace and tolerance.
The pair met at State House late on Tuesday in the presence of African Union (AU) monitoring chief Olusegun Obasanjo, an AU official said. Details of the meeting - an unusual encounter on the eve of an election - were not immediately not known.
Asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether he and ZANU-PF would accept defeat, Mugabe was unequivocal: "You either win or lose. If you lose, you must surrender."