- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe Tempers flared among voters waiting in long lines at polling stations yesterday as the opposition accused government officials of intentionally slowing balloting to frustrate its supporters in the most hotly contested presidential election in Zimbabwe's history.
Some waited for more than 10 hours to cast their ballots on the first of two days of voting. The election gives Zimbabweans a serious alternative to the authoritarian rule of President Robert Mugabe for the first time in two decades. Observers said a high turnout benefited Mr. Mugabe's challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Civic groups, opposition supporters and witnesses said violence and intimidation blamed on Mugabe supporters that plagued the election campaign continued on the first of two days of voting yesterday.
Militants took over two polling stations, stole voting materials from a third and at another station, ballots arrived already marked in favor of Mr. Mugabe, the observers and opposition supporters said.
But the most widespread and potentially explosive complaint was about the long wait at polls which the opposition called a deliberate government ploy.
"The intention, of course, is that you frustrate as many voters as you can. Mugabe is trying to move the goal posts to disenfranchise people, these people he thinks will vote against him," Mr. Tsvangirai said. He called for voting to be extended two days, and urged supporters to be patient.
[Mr. Mugabe, who voted under heavy security in Harare's Highfields suburb, told reporters: "I will accept the result, more than accept it because I will have won," Reuters reported.]
Mr. Mugabe's name did not appear on the list at the polling station where he had planned to vote, so he had to go to another station.
Mr. Mugabe, 78, and his Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have ruled this southern African nation since independence in 1980.
Mr. Tsvangirai, 49, a union leader, is promising to revive the economy and end corruption. Mr. Mugabe has painted Mr. Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as servants to white interests and Western powers who want to see the country fail.
In the weeks before the vote, pro-Mugabe militants attacked opposition supporters, while police broke up several opposition rallies and arrested dozens of Tsvangirai supporters.
The main reason for the slow pace yesterday appeared to be too many voters and not enough stations, observers said. The government reduced the number of stations in urban areas where opposition is higher and increased them in the countryside, where Mr. Mugabe's backing runs strong.
Polling officials at one Harare station took a two-hour lunch, despite raucous complaints from voters. Observers reported officials asking voters numerous questions and slowing balloting.
Some 3,000 people frustrated by the wait rushed a polling station in the Harare township of Kuwadzana. Police firing tear gas and shots in the air dispersed the crowd, and five persons were beaten.
Witnesses reported unusually large numbers of soldiers and armored vehicles in Harare in what appeared to be a show of force.
Some stations stayed open after the official closing time of 7 p.m. to accommodate voters already in line, while others closed because they lacked electricity.
People in line at the polls went home, got blankets and started bedding down to sleep in line so they wouldn't lose their place for the second day of voting today.
Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe who waited in line for 11 hours, said voters were not giving up.
"I have not seen such determination in my life, and they are staying put and the mood is quite jovial," he said by mobile telephone from a Harare suburb.
George Charamba, Mr. Mugabe's spokesman, said the government was "perfectly happy" with the voting and was not concerned by complaints of slow balloting. "It might be a slight inconvenience," he said. "The government can very easily take a decision to extend the voting period."
"Once again Zimbabweans have shown their maturity and turned up in large numbers to exercise their right to vote," Mr. Charamba said.
Reginald Matchabe-Hove, chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an independent observer group, joined the opposition in calling for an extension of the vote, citing confusion at the polling places. "The current poll exercise has become a crisis, but could quickly explode unless it is better managed," he said.


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