HARARE. Zimbabweans cast their ballots Monday in the country's first election since authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe was ousted last year, with concerns over fraud and the likelihood of a disputed result clouding voting day.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe's former ally in the ruling ZANU-PF party, faces opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) in a historic vote for the southern African nation.
"I just have to do this. I have to see a better Zimbabwe for my kids. Things have been tough," Tawanda Petru, 28, an unemployed man voting in Mbare, a low-income district of the capital Harare, told AFP as polling stations opened across the country.
Mugabe, 94, who was ousted by the military in November, made a surprise intervention on the eve of the elections, calling for voters to throw ZANU-PF out of office.
Zimbabwe's generals shocked the world last year when they seized control and ushered Mnangagwa to power after Mugabe allegedly tried to position his wife Grace to be his successor.
Mnangagwa, 75, who promises a fresh start for the country despite being from the ZANU-PF elite, is the front-runner with the advantage of covert military support, a loyal state media and a ruling party that controls government resources.
But Chamisa, 40, who has performed strongly on the campaign trail, hopes to tap into a young population that could vote for change.
The election is Zimbabwe's first without Mugabe, who led ZANU-PF to power in a vote when the country became independent from Britain in 1980 and ruled for 37 years.
Speaking at his mansion in Harare on Sunday, Mugabe said he hoped the election would "thrust away the military form of government."
"I cannot vote for those who tormented me," Mugabe said, hinting he could vote for MDC.
A clean vote?
As Zimbabwe's hectic politics reached fever pitch, Mnangagwa claimed Mugabe's remarks proved that Chamisa was in an alliance with Mugabe.
But Chamisa also spoke out saying: "I have nothing to do with what president Mugabe would want to say as a voter. He is a citizen."
Elections under Mugabe were marred by fraud and often deadly violence, and this year's campaign has been dogged by accusations the result will be rigged.
The MDC has raised repeated allegations of a flawed electoral roll, ballot paper malpractice, voter intimidation, bias in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and free food handed out by the ruling party.
But campaigning has been relatively unrestricted and peaceful.
"After years of stasis, the events of November 2017 gave Zimbabwe the chance to dream again," Mnangagwa said Sunday in an address on state radio.
"As we have always said, the elections will be free, non-violent and credible."
A recent Afrobarometer survey of 2,400 people put Mnangagwa on 40 percent and Chamisa on 37 percent, with 20 percent undecided.
Mnangagwa, who is accused of involvement in election violence and fraud under Mugabe, invited international observers -- including the previously-banned European Union team -- to the poll.
The EU team will deliver a preliminary report later in the week.
Desperate for investment
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of alleged intimidation and threats of violence in the run-up to polling day, but said it was encouraging to see open rallies and peaceful demonstrations.
The next government must tackle mass unemployment and an economy shattered by the Mugabe-backed seizure of white-owned farms, the collapse of agriculture, hyperinflation and an investment exodus.
Previously solid health and education services are in ruins and millions have fled abroad to seek work.
Life expectancy has only just recovered to its 1985 level of 61 years.
"The governing ZANU-PF party needs to maintain a semblance of free and fair elections in order to attract fresh foreign investment," said the London-based EXX Africa business risk consultancy.
"However, there remain serious concerns over vote credibility."
With 5.6 million registered voters, the results of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections are due by August 4.
A run-off vote is scheduled for September 8 if no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent in the first round.
"I'm excited, I'm voting for the first time," said Tawanda Mudondo, 18, who sells phone chargers on the street corner.
"I just want a government that will create jobs. I passed my exams but could not go to university. Our economy is trashed."