Zimbabweans vote amid relative calm

Thursday's parliamentary election saw little violence. Results may be announced as early as Friday.

In Zimbabwe's last election, in 2002, Bushe Muzoka never got to vote. An apparent slowdown staged by election officials meant that he never made it inside the polling station.

But Thursday, Mr. Muzoka voted in his country's parliamentary elections - as evidenced by the purple ink on his pinkie finger. "It was so easy to vote," he says, beaming. "I tell you from my heart, it was so much better."

The relative calm and efficiency of the election were a shift in a nation known for its authoritarian regime. But many outside observers caution that one day does not a democracy make. As one diplomat put it, Zimbabwe may be developing into a "Potemkin democracy."

Results are expected as early as Friday. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change party hopes to hold onto the 57 parliamentary seats - out of 150 - it won in the 2000 vote.

The MDC had only a few initial grievances about election mechanics - a change from past election-related violence, which has included beatings, rapes, and murders of opposition supporters.

For instance, at one polling station, 90 percent of the 82 voters were "assisted" by election officials - which may have involved intimidation, according to Lucia Matibenga, an MDC elections official. At another polling place, she says, 58 percent of voters were turned away because their names weren't on the voter roll. And a growing concern at presstime was that the indelible purple ink on voters' fingers was able to be easily washed off - enabling people to vote multiple times.

In all, though, "despite the hardships, we sufficiently motivated people to go out and vote," Ms. Matibenga says.

Nonetheless, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was not sanguine about the outcome. "We are not happy with the way the electoral playing field has been organized, and I think we all agree, on all benchmarks, this is not going to be a free and fair election," he said as he cast his ballot.

The ruling Zanu-PF party, which has been in power since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 from the British-backed colonial government, said the day validated President Robert Mugabe's pre-election assertion that Zimbabwe has had free and fair elections all along.Mr. Mugabe said Thursday that he was "entirely, completely, totally optimistic" of victory.

A coalition of civil-society monitors called the Zimbabwe Election Support Network found relatively few violations. An emerging concern, however, focused on the printing of ballots, which took place in secret, meaning that only the government knows how many were created. Observers are also watching to see if ruling-party supporters or police target opposition strongholds for violence in the weeks after the election.

As for Mr. Muzoka, he's an unemployed former hotel housekeeper. These days he tries to get by selling flip-flop shoes in a market. "We must have change," he says.

Wire material was used in this report.

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