Polling stations have opened in Zimbabwe in a high-stakes presidential election. Robert Mugabe has pledged to end his 33-year-rule if he loses, but opponents fear a repeat of the violence seen after 2008 elections.
Polling stations opened their doors to Zimbabwean voters early on Wednesday, with some 6.4 million voters eligible to cast their ballots for a new president and parliament.
On the eve of elections, President Mugabe attempted to dispel fears of political upheaval in the event that results don't favor him or his powerful Zanu-PF party.
"If you lose you must surrender," Mugabe told reporters at a press conference in the capital city, Harare, on Tuesday. The 89-year-old president has held office since the end of British colonial rule in 1980.
Morgan Tsvangirai is seeking to unseat Mugabe and his powerful Zanu-PF party. The 61-year-old frontrunner of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) became Zimbabwe's prime minister after narrowly losing the presidential elections in 2008.
Presidential candidates must capture 50 percent plus one vote to win the race outright. If none of the candidates win an outright majority on Wednesday, Zimbabweans will return to the polls on September 11.
Under the terms of Zimbabwe's new constitution, a president may serve a maximum of two five-year terms. The new law does not apply retroactively to President Mugabe's three decades in office.
Due to a lack of reliable opinion polls, it is difficult to project which candidate holds the lead among voters. More than losing, political opponents appear to fear the consequences of winning in a country ruled with a fierce grip by the same president for 33 years.
However, Mugabe reassured reporters on Tuesday that whoever won would have the full respect of the military.
"It's just those one or two, they are not the army," Mugabe said, referring to rumors of military commanders who would reject a Tsvangirai victory. "And they are not the authority anyway."
Reports of suspicious voter rolls circulated through the media on the eve of the election as well, but Mugabe dismissed accusations of a scheme to rig votes.
"We have done no cheating, never ever," he said.
Voter irregularities and ensuing violence plagued the 2008 presidential election.
In the first vote, Mugabe garnered only 43.2 percent of the vote, while his opponent, Tsvangirai took 47.9 percent. Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off election citing violent intimidation from Zanu-PF loyalists against his own MDC supporters. International pressure eventually led Mugabe to agree to share power with his main opponent by appointing him premier.
No Western observers
The United States expressed its concern at the fairness of Wednesday's polls and government restrictions on society, citing "the lack of transparency in electoral preparations, by continued partisan behavior by state security institutions and by the technical and logistical issues hampering the administration of a credible and transparent election." The comments came in a statement issued by US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki on Tuesday.
Mugabe has banned observers from Western countries from polling stations this year. Instead, electoral oversight groups from countries considered friendly to Zimbabwe, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), have traveled to the southern African country to observe the elections.
In addition to selecting a president on Wednesday, Zimbabweans must also cast votes for 60 members of the Senate, who are elected by proportional representation and from a list which alternates between female and male candidates. They must also vote for the 210 members of the National Assembly. Lawmakers from both chambers serve a term of five years.
kms/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)