Zimbabweans voted Saturday in key parliamentary and municipal by-elections seen as a test for President Emmerson Mnangangwa’s ruling party in next year’s general polls.
The polls had generated so much interest in the run-up that Mnangangwa led various campaign rallies to shore up support for his ZANU-PF candidates.
But only short queues were seen in the hours after polling stations opened at 7 am.
The southern African country has for years been grappling with economic hardships, joblessness and accusations the government was stifling dissent.
“We need change,” Jasen Maeka, a 42-year-old unemployed man said after voting at a polling station in central Harare.
“We should give the opposition a chance. This government has proved to be a failure,” Maeka said.
Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who is seen as the most formidable challenger to Mnangangwa, formed a new party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), three months before the by-elections.
He sees the election as a “crucial… a dry run of the 2023 election”.
The new party drew massive crowds to its campaign rallies.
Chamisa’s party complained of growing repression by the authorities as several of its rallies were banned by the police during the two-month long campaign.
Unrest at an opposition rally last month left one person dead and 22 injured.
During the campaign, the country’s vice president Constantino Chiwenga likened the opposition to lice which should be “crushed” and Mnangagwa vowed at a Thursday rally that ZANU-PF would rule “forever”.
ZANU-PF, which has led the country since independence from Britain in 1980, also attracted huge campaign crowds.
– ‘Another disputed election’ –
Critics accuse Mnangagwa, who took power in 2017 after Robert Mugabe ruled for 37 years, of muzzling critics and the opposition has voiced concern that election will not be credible.
Chamisa accused the electoral commission of bias and said he had alerted regional blocs such as SADC.
“We can’t have yet another disputed election,” said Chamisa after casting his ballot in Harare’s Kuwadzana township.
“We want a proper referee, a proper umpire not this one who throws the whistle away to join the other team,” he said, referring to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
“ZEC is literally mobilising apathy, making sure that people are frustrated, making sure that the vote is suppressed”.
Voters are casting ballots in 28 parliamentary constituencies including 20 where opposition lawmakers were recalled in a battle over the control of the country’s largest opposition party.
The rest of the seats fell vacant following the deaths or reassignment of the incumbents.
By-elections were also being held in 122 local government municipalities.
The by-elections were supposed to be held within 90 days of the seats falling vacant but Mnangangwa delayed the polls in 2020 citing the Covid-19 pandemic.
A voter checks for her name on the voters roll pinned outside a polling station in Epworth township
Sixteen parties were taking part in the elections.
On the eve of the polls, Chamisa’s party alleged that the election was rigged before voting had taken place, citing errors in the voters register.
The ZANU-PF director for information and publicity, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, told AFP the voting process has been going “pretty well.”
He said: “So far so good.”
Polls close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).