'I queued for hours but it's been more tiring having to vote for the same man for 22 years'

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The Independent Online

The scorching sun, his rotund build and 20 hours in an election queue that moved at a snail's pace conspired to make the bespectacled black man outside Avondale primary school in Harare perspire profusely.

"I came here at 10am on Saturday, and finally got to vote at 6am this morning. My last meal was breakfast yesterday. I'm going home to eat and sleep."

The hotel administrator, who did not want to be named because "we're scared of what's going to happenthis week", said that at 2am yesterday officials announced they needed to sleep and were closing the polling station. "There was no violence, but we got so angry that they stayed open."

Painfully slow voting marked the first two days of the most bitterly fought election in Zimbabwe's history. After the first day of polling it was estimated that only one in seven people in Harare – which overwhelmingly backs the Movement for Democratic Change – had been able to vote.

Everywhere around the capital yesterday there were frustrated queues as the electorate defied an attempt by the government to discourage voting in urban areas, which are opposition strongholds where 3.4 million of the 5.6 million registered voters live.

Last night, as the official deadline passed for the polling stations to close, lawyers for the MDCwon their battle in the High Court to get voting extended into a third day. The Mugabe government said it was appealing against the extension to the Supreme Court and several thousand voters waiting outside at least one station in the capital were chased away by riot police who ordered the building locked.

In the capital's poor Glen View district people remained determined to vote, and many swore they would not let the ballot boxes leave without their votes. "We will block the doors or we will die here," said P Philgo, an unemployed 27-year-old.

Earlier, High Court judges and opposition officials took to a helicopter to fly over polling stations to assess whether voting should be extended.

Patrick Chinamasa, the Justice Minister, had also taken to the skies to see for himself and declare that there was no need to keep the polling stations open for a third day. Long queues were "not a national phenomenon", he said.

The MDC, whose candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, is fighting President Robert Mugabe for the presidency, lodged the court challenge in desperation, arguing that tens of thousands of its supporters would not otherwise get to cast their ballots. But two years of political violence and intimidation, blatant gerrymandering and mass disenfranchisement have made people pessimistic that this late concession can ensure anything approaching a free and fair election.

The number of polling stations in the capital was almost halved, causing queues a thousand-strong to snake down roads and around corners. The voters' roll was shambolic and, with not enough polling officials, only a few people were being allowed inside stations at once.

People whose names began with M or N were made to wait while polling agents started from A and worked their way through the register. A peek inside a tented station at Gun Hill in Harare showed just one stand where people could mark their ballots.

Clearly, many gave up in frustration. But if this was a deliberate tactic to win Mr Mugabe a fifth term in office, the determination of voters to have their say has been an extraordinary feature of the poll.

Tens of thousands were prepared to stick out the wait, some patiently reading novels as they queued. Food vendors set up shop beside queues in some areas, doing a brisk trade as odours tickled appetites and provided a welcome distraction.

"People are desperate for change," said the Avondale man. "We know who should win, but we're worried that cheating by the Zanu-PF government will bring more of the same. In that case, Zimbabwe is finished."

Didho Manyika, 33, an office caretaker, did not care if the government knew how he felt. "I got here at 6am and stood for seven hours. It took me 20 minutes to vote. The officials were slow and took ages to find my name on the list. But it's worth the wait. I tell you, it's been more tiring having to vote for the same man for 22 years. Enough is enough. All the people here want Mr Tsvangirai to win," he said.

Roads into Mabvuku township, east of Harare, were blocked by police and soldiers. There, people were noisier.

A fracas broke out over the slow pace of voting, and a young man said angrily: "I registered but my name is not on the roll. I can't believe it." Thousands of other would-be voters in Harare shared his experience.

Queues were no shorter yesterday in Dzivarasekwa, where many people had waited through the night of Saturday. Voters said they would not be deterred by the government's dirty tricks. "It's frustrating, but if the idea is to discourage us from voting, that's not going to happen," said Dennis Musodai, a teacher aged 47.

It was difficult to judge whether turn-outs were spectacular or if queues were primarily caused by long delays in Harare, where voting was complicated by simultaneous mayoral and council polls. Voting was also reported to be slow in some areas of cities such as Bulawayo, Mutare and Masvingo.

At Alexander Park in Harare, a businesswoman with tourist and recruitment agencies surveyed the scene and declared: "I can't stand waiting again today." She headed off for Gun Hill, which had no queue. "I can't vote for the mayor or city council candidate there, because it isn't my ward, but the presidential election is the crucial one anyway. If Mr Mugabe wins I'm leaving the country. My businesses are collapsing. Zimbabwe has run out of tourists, and out of jobs to recruit people into."

Witnesses reported fewer voters queuing in rural areas, where Mr Mugabe enjoys his greatest support but many people were undoubtedly too afraid to vote. At least 58 people were arrested over the weekend in actions apparently focusing on opposition supporters. The MDC reported assaults around the country. Joseph Dladla, a poll monitor, had his hands tied behind his back before being beaten by Zanu-PF supporters with iron bars and sticks. He and other victims of attacks by members of the ruling party appeared on South African television, their backs criss-crossed with whip marks.

The MDC said the homes of many of its supporters had been firebombed in Mashonaland West while in Harare police looked on while Zanu-PF militia attacked people waiting to vote in Mbare, a sprawling working-class township.

The government-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper meanwhile reported that police were investigating MDC agents allegedly carrying sprays that make people sleep.

Elizabeth Dobiwa was wide awake and very worried about the future after casting her vote. A widow with seven children, who lost her job as a domestic servant when her employer left the country, now sells tomatoes on the streets of Chitungwiza, a sprawling town south of Harare. She made the trip to Alexander Park, where she registered while employed.

"We're desperate. There's no food and no jobs anymore. I can only afford to send four of my children to school," she said. "I know it'll be hard for Mr Tsvangirai to put things right, maybe it's already too late. But if the government doesn't let him win, I fear for my children."