Polls opened on Monday in Zimbabwe’s first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed vote Zimbabweans hope will rid the country of its global pariah status and spark a recovery in its failed economy.
The voters will make a choice for the presidency between incumbent 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally and 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
Voting began at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will end at 7 p.m.
Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, had come out on Sunday to urge the people not to vote for Mnangagwa and others who toppled him last November in a de facto coup d’etat. But he fell short of outrightly endorsing Chamisa.
He said: “I will not vote for those who have illegally taken power.”
Mugabe, who has backed a new political party that is part of a coalition supporting Chamisa, said of him: “He seems to be doing well at his rallies.”
And Mugabe added: “Whoever wins, we wish him well … And let us accept the verdict.”
Many in Zimbabwe knew no other leader but Mugabe, who led the country for 37 years and since independence from white minority rule in 1980.
What began with optimism crumbled into repression, alleged vote-rigging, intimidation of the opposition, violent land seizures from white farmers and years of international sanctions.
The country hopes that a credible vote on Monday could get those sanctions lifted and bring badly needed investment for a collapsed economy.
Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe confidante, had tried to recast himself as a voice for reform, inviting back Western dozens of election observers and pledging a free and fair vote.
“I have during all this time liked our return to conditionality, our return to legality, an environment in which our people are free,” Mugabe told reporters.
But he blamed “evil and malicious characters” for his removal from power, which was met with a joyous outpouring in the capital, Harare, by thousands.