HARARE: Zimbabweans voted on Monday in the first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed moment they hope will rid the country of its pariah status and spark a recovery in its failed economy.
The election will see 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, face 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer, and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe`s youngest head of state.
Polls, which are unreliable, give former intelligence chief Mnangagwa only a slim lead over Chamisa, making a runoff on September 8 if no candidate wins more than half the votes.
Mugabe, whose 37-year rule came to an end when he was forced to resign facing imminent impeachment in November, told reporters at his mansion in Harare on Sunday that Mnangagwa`s government was unconstitutional and ruled by the gun.
Mnangagwa, of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), has pledged to revive the moribund economy, attract foreign investment and end racial and tribal divisions.
Several elections under Mugabe were marred by intimidation, rigging, and widespread violence but the consensus is the build-up to this vote has been better than before.
There have been reports of intimidation and coercion and state media are biased towards ZANU–PF.
Chamisa`s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has questioned the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
Queues of eager voters snaked around the streets of the capital Harare from before sunrise. For Zimbabwe to be welcomed back into the international fold, end painful sanctions and secure the donor funding it needs to stem chronic cash shortages, observers have to sign off on the vote as being credible.
Mnangagwa has welcomed foreign media and international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Commonwealth, while opposition parties have been freely allowed to campaign.
"Although an outbreak of widespread violence as in 2008 is not expected ... incidents of localized violence are increasing in frequency and intensity."
“It is exciting to see so many Zimbabweans casting ballots," said former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-leader of the National Democratic Institute`s observer mission.
"However the public's faith in the secrecy of the ballot is essential for the credibility of the process. We urge the authorities to do everything possible to ensure the secrecy of Monday's vote."
Mnangagwa has made a big effort to win over foreign opinion, hosting Western ambassadors, courting investors and patching up relations with white commercial farmers who were violently evicted from their farms under Mugabe.
Whoever wins will face the mammoth task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule that was tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation, sending one of Africa`s most promising economies into crisis.