Zimbabweans To Cast Ballots In Presidential Race

Zimbabweans go to the polls Wednesday to elect their next president. Many fear a repeat of the 2008 election violence that killed 200 people. President Robert Mugabe is facing opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the vote. Riot police have been deployed in the event of conflict.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. People in Zimbabwe are voting today in a presidential election that features an incumbent who's been in office for 33 years. President Robert Mugabe is now 89 and has been in office since he led a rebellion freeing Zimbabwe from colonialism.

MONTAGNE: In recent years Mugabe is better known for repressing his opponents. In the last election five years ago, when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai apparently got a majority of the votes, Mugabe refused to leave office. And in the end the two shared leadership in a unity government.

GREENE: We'll begin our coverage with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. Ofeibea, good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings. Greetings from Harare. Brrrr. Freezing temperatures, although the sun is trying to come out. People were wearing blankets and woolens and fleeces to keep themselves warm in very, very long lines here in the capital.

GREENE: What are people talking about?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, that they hope that their country has turned the corner. Of course Zimbabwe has been through many, many woes in recent years. Five years ago the elections were characterized by violence - observers and human rights campaigners say state-sponsored violence by President Mugabe's party.

So much so that Morgan Tsvangirai, who was the main opposition challenger, pulled out of the elections and of course President Mugabe won. This time around the opposition is staying in, although they have been in this fragile, one would say even uneasy political alliance, power sharing for the past four years. Both sides, President Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, are both predicting outright victory in a first round.

We'll see, but Zimbabweans are certainly very keen to vote.

GREENE: So those memories are still fresh from the violence of the last election. And I wonder, I mean the opposition, the prime minster, already accusing the government of some electoral manipulation this time around. Are people worried that this might go down a violent road again?

QUIST-ARCTON: Probably less violence because the campaign was comparatively so peaceful. And yes, the opposition is saying that the voter's roll of registered voters has been manipulated by President Mugabe's party. But right now I think uppermost in Zimbabweans' mind is an end to strife. There was no food for, what, two or three years. Things were extremely hard. Now with a dollarized economy, the Zimbabwe dollar is no longer the currency here. The U.S. dollar reigns supreme.

We're seeing at least a rebuilding of the economy. So I think there is hope among Zimbabweans.

GREENE: What is the message from the opposition, from the prime minister? What kind of change does he feel like he can bring?

QUIST-ARCTON: What Morgan Tsvangirai is telling voters is that his movement for democratic change, we are the new brushes who will sweep out the old. We'll sweep out corruption. We'll sweep out violence. We'll sweep out the things that have held Zimbabwe back. He is not as charismatic as President Mugabe, but he's a former labor leader. People feel that he will bring (foreign language spoken) - as they say, change - that he will propel this country forward.

But his critics say he has poor judgment. His wife was killed in a car crash a few years ago and his love life has been a little messy. And many people say, well, if you can't even choose which woman you're going to marry, how can you run a country?

GREENE: Wow. I guess the one question is, Ofeibea, does he have a chance of winning and running the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yes. In the urban areas Tsvangirai is king. But you will get President Robert Mugabe telling us, as he did at a long press conference yesterday, let's think of the rural areas. Harare is the capital but it is not all Zimbabwe. People in the rural areas remember that it was Robert Mugabe who won the liberation war against white minority rule and who brought independence and freedom to Zimbabwe. So his ZANU PF is the party to vote for.

GREENE: All right, Ofeibea, stay warm and thanks so much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

GREENE: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who is in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.

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