Zimbabweans are going to vote for a new president, parliament and local government with more then 5.6 million on the voters’ roll, which analysts say includes record numbers of younger people and a record numbers of candidates in most constituencies.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa and opposition challenger Nelson Chamisa, for the MDC Alliance, are both attracting crowds around the country and both have a similar message: fixing a wrecked economy.
The High Court of Masvingo this week also prohibited Zanu-PF from making school children attend its rallies or using teachers, school premises, including property such as buses or school buildings for any political campaigns.
In response to the High Court order, the UN sent a message of support to the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union which championed the case. The UN welcomed the ruling, saying it was in line with the Convention on Rights of Children.
Observers of Zimbabwe’s polls - especially since the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change in late 1999 - say the elections, the first in the absence of former president Robert Mugabe at the helm the ruling Zanu-PF party, are so far the most serene.
But tension is evident in some rural areas and older voters said they still felt constrained by some security forces living among them. They also remember previous polls which were marked by both violence and fear.
In several villages about 70km north east of Harare people said they felt anxious when Zanu-PF activists campaigned door to door and asked residents their names and addresses, which were written down.
“We feel intimidated by this because the Zanu-PF people say they want information about ‘our’ people. So if they skip your name, then we will come forward and say ‘I am part of Zanu-PF, please write my name down.’”
Another villager told researchers the so-called special constabulary was working side by side with “army guys” not in uniform who claim they are “maintaining law and order” before elections.
“They are polite but they make sure people know who they are. And that makes us worried,” a villager said.
Memories of political violence during campaigns ahead of presidential elections in 2008 remained sharp. At least 200 people were killed and thousands fled their homes as polling day neared. MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the election a week before polling day and the violence stopped.
Tsvangirai, who died in hospital in Joburg in February, easily beat Robert Mugabe in the first round of the 2008 presidential poll, but was denied victory because he did not score more then 50% of the votes.
As no country recognised Mugabe’s second-round victory at the polls, he and Zanu-PF agreed to a unity government with the MDC, although power within the cabinet was heavily weighted in Zanu-PF’s favour.
The MDC lost 17 seats to Zanu-PF in the 2013 elections via the split opposition vote. The MDC was heavily beaten in those elections, but since then it has recovered substantial support, according to pollsters Afrobarometer.
There are 23 candidates in the presidential elections and record numbers standing for election in most of the parliamentary seats. These high numbers will split the anti Zanu-PF vote again, said Derek Matyszak, researcher for the Institute of Security Studies.
He reports that both the MDC Alliance, (a coalition of seven opposition political parties) and Zanu-PF had contested primary elections which were replete with allegations of electoral fraud and accusations of the imposition of candidates.
Many losing candidates, believing that they have considerable support in their constituencies regardless of the announced primary election results, resolved to stand as independents.
“If their belief is correct, this will further give rise to splitting the votes of the two main contestants” and “there were several candidates who had already resolved to stand as independents and who are believed to command significant support - with the same possible consequence”.
The MDC Alliance discovered after nomination court last month there were several constituencies where it had more than one candidate. Matyszak concluded that the opposition had not come together as a single block.
“The opposite has occurred. The fracturing and disarray within the opposition is likely to have its cost at the polls.”
He said while the split vote was not significant in the presidential election, it was likely that seats would be lost by the MDC Alliance in the parliamentary elections, especially in the Matabeleland provinces where the MDC previously was the dominant political party.
Nelson Chamisa, moving around the country into areas his predecessor Tsvangirai never went and with about 80 rallies under his belt so far, has complained that the Zimbabwe Election Commission is partisan.
The voters’ roll has been carelessly compiled, with tens of thousands of data-capturing errors, but the typing errors are restrained by the new method of registering voters in Zimbabwe.
A new roll was created, with EU donor funds, and people’s identities were secured by fingerprints and photographs.
Mnangagwa said on Friday that if Chamisa was worried about the voters’ roll or ZEC, he should “go to court” to challenge the commission, which appears to avoid any contact with the media and does not answer questions put to it.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Irish president Mary Robinson from the group known as the The Elders were in Harare on Friday and she said: “Let’s hope the next five years will not be like the past five years.”