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Voting has begun on Thursday in Zimbabwe’s parliamentary election amid continuing opposition claims of unfairness and intimidation.
Polls will remain open until 7 pm CET on Thursday for the election, which is under intense international scrutiny after parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002 widely criticised as rigged.
One hundred and twenty seats in Zimbabwe’s 150-seat legislature are being contested by the ruling Zanu-PF party, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and a handful of independent candidates. Zimbabwe’s constitution allows the president to appoint up to 30 MPs, and the MDC currently holds 57 seats in parliament.
Both President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the MDC have expressed confidence of victory, despite charges of unfairness dogging the poll.
President Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 25 years, and is Africa’s last independence-era leader to still be in office.
The MDC on Wednesday evening again expressed misgivings about the poll after several of its election officers, trained to monitor voting at more than 8,200 polling stations, failed to receive accreditation.
The party, whose leaders Mr Mugabe accuses of being puppets of Britain, claimed that election officers in constituencies in Masvingo, Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Bulawayo had failed to receive accreditation after they were unable to produce original copies of newspaper advertisements carrying their names.
The MDC said it had published ads listing the names of all 24,000 of its agents in four newspapers on March 28 in keeping with new electoral rules, but that constituency election officers were refusing to recognise photocopies of the adverts. The party said it had received no response to its complaint about the incident to Justice Chishewe, chairman of the new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which the party called a “partisan body.”
The MDC had already criticised pre-vote conditions as unfair, including the gerrymandering of electoral districts to favour Zanu-PF, alleged disenfranchisement of urban voters believed to favour the MDC, and a voters’ roll that the party and watchdog groups believe could overstate the true number of voters by as many as two million people.
Observers monitoring the election in the field on Thursday mostly described it as peaceful, but allegations of irregularities persisted.
In Mashonaland West, a Zanu-PF stronghold near Harare, an MDC official accused Zanu-PF youth militia of intimidating voters. John Katuli, managing the election in the Zvimba North constituency, told the FT that voting had gone peacefully, but that three of its polling agents had been denied accreditation.
Mr Katuli claimed that Zanu-PF youth were doing “forced registration” outside polling stations, asking voters to supply them with their names and ID numbers. When three foreign reporters approached a polling station on Samkange Farm – owned by the governor of Mashonaland West – a man guarding a boom wrote down the name and details of one before letting them in.
“We will never be able to hold a free and fair election as far as what I’ve seen today,” Mr Katuli said.
Zimbabwe’s rural communities are small and close-knit, and Zanu-PF gets most of its support in the countryside. With a record number of polling stations around the country, critics of Thursday’s vote say the scope for intimidation of would-be opposition voters is large.
The large number of polling stations may also make thorough montitoring of the vote impossible.
Zimbabwe only accredited about 400 mostly African observers for the vote. A group of observers from the Southern African Development Community encountered by the FT appeared to be thinly spread among a number of polling stations, with limited time to spend at each.