Zimbabweans have flocked to vote in a crunch election marked by accusations of rigging by President Robert Mugabe’s allies to extend his 33-year rule.
Counting was due to begin shortly after polls began closing on Wednesday in the knife-edge race between Mugabe and his longtime political rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
The 89-year-old Mugabe is Africa’s oldest leader and is running for office for the seventh and perhaps final time, but his rivals hope the election will usher in a new era for the southern African nation.
At one station in central Harare translucent boxes with grey covers were sealed with yellow cable ties, while at others voters already queueing were being given a chance to cast their ballots.
Organisers had reported high turnout across the country for the first election since the violent polls of 2008 which ended in an uneasy powersharing government.
At many stations voters started queuing before sunrise in the winter cold and long before they opened. The lines continued well into the evening, with many marking their ballots by candle light.
“I am sure people will vote freely and fairly, there is no pressure being exerted on anyone,” Mugabe said as he cast his vote in a Harare suburb.
The one-time teacher came to prominence as a hero of Africa’s liberation movement, guiding Zimbabwe to independence from Britain and white minority rule.
But his military-backed rule has been marked by a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections that have brought international sanctions and made him a pariah in the West.
Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed attacks.
Voting this year has been calm, but the 61-year-old former union boss has repeatedly voiced concerns that the election is being rigged.
Mugabe has vowed to bow out if he loses the election, but his supporters are bent on ensuring the veteran leader extend his 33-year rule.