Zimbabwe vote a test of patience

Polls show high turnout in pro-Mugabe strongholds; in MDC areas, voters face long lines and frustration.

Martha's neighbors know her as a high-ranking district official of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF Party, the woman who drills local children each Friday in the party doctrine. But in her heart, the 38-year-old widow supports the opposition and keeps a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) membership card hidden in a cooking pot.

"We just want someone who can give us food, hospitals, school fees. A better life," says Martha, explaining why she voted for MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.

There are many Marthas here, people who marched to ZANU-PF anthems and cheered President Robert Mugabe at rallies, while secretly planning to vote for Mr. Tsvangirai. "People pretend to be ZANU-PF because they are afraid. They wear the T-shirts and go to the rallies, but inside, they don't believe," she says.

After months of fear and intimidation, Zimbabweans streamed to the polls this weekend in record numbers to cast their votes in the country's first contested election since independence 22 years ago. Many arrived at overburdened polling stations in the early hours of the morning and waited in the hot sun for the entire day without food.

"You see this tarred road and this grass? That was my bed," says Janet, a Harare secretary, who waited for more than 27 hours at a polling station in the impoverished Harare suburb of Kuwadzana. "I wanted to go home, but I have to vote," she says. "This is a crucial presidential election. This is our future."

Even as voters went to the polls over the weekend, the intimidation and attempts at rigging continued. The government slashed the number of polling stations in urban areas where the MDC is favored, while boosting the number in rural ruling-party strongholds. In Kuwadzana, there were seven polling stations for about 55,000 people. Rural Bindura had 41 polling stations for a smaller number of people.

Now the country's 5.6 million voters are waiting anxiously for the results of the poll to be announced, although the voting, which was supposed to end Sunday, may stretch on for days. The question foremost in the minds of most Zimbabweans is whether attempts to rig the election through voter intimidation, last- minute election-law changes, and outright fraud have succeeded.

An increasing number of local election monitors and international observers say the vote rigging has been so thorough that hopes for a free election are dead.

"The main cheating took place long before election days," says Brian Murphy of the Zimbabwe Citizens support group, an organization whose members spread around the country this weekend privately monitoring the elections. Mr. Murphy points to the lack of independent voter education, the lack of any independent radio stations, and the ban on holding opposition rallies in many districts as just a few examples. "This is not a fair election," he says.

There is a deep faith here, however, in the power of democracy.

Edward Murchabaiw arrived at a Rushinga polling station at 6 a.m. in a wheelbarrow, his emaciated frame drowing in a faded blue suit-jacket. Murchabaiw, diagnosed in the last stages of AIDS, does not believe he will live to see the results of this election. But he wanted to sound his voice. "I am happy now," he says with a bright smile after voting. "I have made a difference."

In urban areas, lines snaked for more than a mile and angry voters sometimes tried to push their way into polling booths. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at one restless crowd, injuring at least 12 people. Some polls stayed open all night, with people voting by flickering candlelight or under harsh fluorescent bulbs.

"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," said Tsvangirai, visiting one polling station where thousands waited angrily to cast their votes, waving their hands in the open-handed signal of the MDC.

In rural areas, many polling stations stood empty by midday. Lines were not a problem, but transparency was.

The MDC says that 52 percent of its rural polling agents were chased away, abducted, or refused accreditation by government officials, leaving the voting process open to widespread abuse. Old and illiterate voters were assisted by ZANU-PF officials who often directed them to vote for the incumbent president.

At the Chaparandza Primary School in the rural Rushinga, Mary Mugumira, wearing a wool "USA 1997" hat, a long traditional dress, no shoes, and a confused look, asked the presiding officer to vote for her. He refused, but sent her to talk to the election officers - both of whom represented the ruling ZANU-PF party. A moment later she had decided, and the polling agent, smiling, put an "X" mark on the ballot in the space marked "Robert Mugabe, ZANU-PF."

Despite everything, there is still hope in Zimbabwe that this election may bring change.

"I am happy because I finally got to vote," says a jubilant Colin Chipepera, after waiting for more than 12 hours in one Harare voting line. "I think this is the final nail on the government's coffin. Even with all their tricks, there are too many of us."

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