They queue, they wait, they hope

Opposition voters queue for hours to find they are not on the electoral roll
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Arthur Brenchley was hopping mad. After seven hours in a queue at Highlands Primary School in Harare, the frail 77-year-old former Royal Air Force trainer was denied the vote for the first time in 44 years in Zimbabwe.

"My name wasn't on the list," said the Second World War veteran, originally from Calshot in Hampshire. "I was told that I had renounced my citizenship, but it's a bloody lie. Look, here's my card." What happened to Mr Brenchley and his wife Val, a landscape gardener, was repeated across town in the poor township of Mbare. Only six people were processed in the first half-hour at one polling station – and none of them wasable to vote. Their names were not on the voters' roll.

Millions of Zimbabweans have been excluded from the presidential elections this weekend. The scheduled two days of voting got off to a painfully slow start yesterday, and there was every sign that it was deliberate. President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government is seemingly intent on stopping as many of its citizens as possible from voting in opposition areas.

Across Harare, long static lines of thousands of voters, – many with chairs, umbrellas, food and flasks of tea, others glumly squatting on pavement edges – snaked for hundreds of yards outside polling stations. At some, no more than a few dozen people an hour were processed: only those who arrived early got to vote.

Facing defeat in a presidential poll for the first time in 22 years of rule, President Mugabe appears to have thought of everything in his effort to thwart his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change. There has been mass disenfranchisement, including that of more than two million citizens living outside Zimbabwe, blatant vote rigging, and state-sponsored political violence that has claimed more than 100 lives. There have been 30,000 reported cases of harassment and assault, mostly of opposition supporters, in the past two years.

And yesterday was no exception. In central Harare, at one polling station, most people arriving did not get to vote: "It's just taking too long. I live close by, so I'll come back later or tomorrow," said Cecelia Schumba, 23. Voting was further slowed in the capital by simultaneous elections for mayor and city council.

"I've never seen so many people turn out, but then our very future is at stake," said Zacharias Mushonga, a 55-year-old engineer, who rose to vote at the Highlands station at 5am. He was by no means the first to arrive: others had been queueing since 2am.

Mr Mushonga, three of whose brothers were standing for the city council, made no secret of his support for the MDC. "We're determined to vote. I'm not going anywhere."

He was right about that, but not in the way he meant: the queue had not moved for two hours. "Nobody's explaining why, but it's obvious to me that Zanu-PF doesn't want us to vote," he concluded.

The opposition-supporting paper, the Daily News, is accustomed to this obstruction. Since last year, when its printing presses were bombed, it has had to rely on a government-owned plant where long production delays are normal. "At one polling station, it took two hours for just 50 people to vote," said the news editor, John Gambanga. "We fear that even three days wouldn't be enough."

The MDC held a crisis meeting, but there is little it can do except take notes and plan electoral challenges through the courts.

But the Brenchleys appealed. And got nowhere. Their names were on the voters' roll in December but like thousands of other whites they got a letter from the Registrar General in February saying that they were no longer eligible to vote. They protested and, having not heard back, should still have been on the roll. "Every obstacle has been place in our way," said Mr Brenchley.

There was one final indignity. He was sitting on a plastic chair belonging to a charitable organisation running an information table, but as we talked the table was folded away and the chair whisked away from under him. "Zanu-PF officials have told us to go," explained Fiona Willmot of the charity. "Clearly they want voters confused."