“Mugabe will win!” exclaims the gangly, gap-toothed young man in a fake Manchester United shirt emerging from a polling station in Bindura, one of the Zimbabwe patriarch's strongholds. And then, shocked by the volume of his own enthusiasm for the ageing president, he anxiously looks around to see if anyone else is in earshot, before wordlessly scampering down the dusty road. Such is Zimbabwe's election: even Robert Mugabe's own supporters, in fiercely loyal areas, are nervous about parading their politics.
Every election in Zimbabwe over the past decade has been tense, marred by accusations of blatant vote rigging, intimidation, and bloodshed. Today's presidential and parliamentary polls largely appeared to be violence-free, although Mugabe's opponents - and foreign observers - were still complaining of widespread cheating by the president's henchmen. Mugabe's main rival, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said he was confident of victory while casting his vote, despite various electoral manipulations.
Mr 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.”
While Mugabe has become something of a pariah in the west for his authoritarian leadership style and targeting of political opponents, in the heartland of his support he is as popular as ever.
Bindura is 85km north of Zimbabwe's capital Harare. The town is home to some of Mugabe's most fervent followers, and in March hosted the president's lavish 89th birthday party, said to cost some £400,000. It is split between farming - mainly cotton and maize - and mining for gold and copper. As a longtime recipient of Mugabe's largesse and protection, Bindura could lose its privileges if the president fails in his re-election bid.
Not that Mugabe's supporters will admit the prospect of defeat. As the only leader Zimbabwe has known in its 33 year as an independent nation, he can still inspires zeal. “He is the father of our nation, our George Washington,” says Justin, a fruit seller. “He looks after us. No-one cares more about Zimbabwe than he does.”
Others pour scorn on Mr Tsvangirai, who trounced Mugabe in the first round of the 2008 poll but pulled out of the run-off when mounting violence left some 200 of his supporters dead. Mr Tsvangirai then agreed to lead a unity government between his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. But many voters say his administration is corrupt, and Mr Tsvangirai's colourful love life has been a target of criticism. “Mugabe is the only one who can lead us,” says Emmerson, a truck driver. “Morgan had his chance as prime minister, but he has not succeeded. I think he has been more interested in women than in Zimbabwe.”
Not everyone in the region is so keen on Mugabe. In Mazowe, a town halfway between Bindura and Harare, there is more scepticism. “I think the MDC will win. It is time for a change,” says Brendan, an engineer in the local gold mine.
It is hard to gauge the extent of Mugabe's support as there are no reliable polls. Tellingly, election observers from Europe, the United States and the United Nations have been barred. But there are some 600 monitors from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
In Bindura, observers have been effusive in praising the relatively peaceful conduct of the election. There was little violence in the run-up to the poll, while the day itself was characterised by the high turnout. One AU observer, Orji Uzor Kalu, from Nigeria, hailed what he called the “solemn, collected and calm queuing,” reflecting, “a commitment to the democratic process today, as opposed to past years.” Polls, which opened at 7am local time, were scheduled to close at 7pm, but the electoral commission extended it until midnight.
But the lack of violence does not imply that the vote is free and fair. NGOs have been vocal in condemning the vote. In June, the independent Research and Advocacy Unit said the electoral roll had been doctored to include around one million dead voters or people who have moved abroad, as well as over 100,000 people aged over 100 years old.
In a report last week, the International Crisis Group said there was little chance that the elections would be free and fair. “The voters roll is a shambles, security forces unreformed and the media grossly imbalanced,” it said. Transparency International warned that whatever the result, “A return to protracted political crisis, and possibly extensive violence, is likely.”
The MDC says Mugabe's control of the state media, the courts and security forces mean he can manipulate the election without overt intimidation. Tsvangirai himself has already branded the vote as “a sham”, saying Mugabe has not just manipulated electoral rolls, but kept hundreds of thousands of eligible people from registering to vote.
Officially, the number of registered voters in Zimbabwe has increased to 6.2 million from 5.2 million in 2008, but the figures vary. Indeed, the province of Mashonaland Central, which gathers Bindura and other Mugabe-leaning districts, recorded the highest number of the new voters, with some 89,647 first time voters. But Bulawayo, traditionally hostile to Mugabe, recorded the lowest new voters, with only 3,583 registered since 2008.
As day wore on in Bindura, queues were still snaking outside the Chipadze High School, the Bindura Army School, the Agricultural College, and other polling stations. Part of the delay was due to officials daubing the little fingers of voters in ink, to prove they had cast their ballots. Those in line were still wary of expressing themselves too loudly, but nonetheless appeared relieved and proud as they emerged from the booths, waving their fingers to their friends, their democratic duty completed.
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