HARARE, Zimbabwe — Millions of Zimbabweans voted on Monday to pick their first elected leader after 37 years of rule by Robert Mugabe ended last year. A credible election could herald the beginning of a new era for Zimbabwe, attracting foreign investment after years of economic isolation.
The results — expected to be announced later this week — will determine whether Zimbabwe sticks with 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who became president after Mugabe’s fall in November, or looks to a new generation, making 40-year-old activist-turned-politician Nelson Chamisa the youngest president in Africa.
With 23 candidates on the ballot, opinion polls suggest the two front-runners may fall short of the 50 percent needed for outright victory. That would force a two-man runoff on Sept. 8.
Whoever ultimately wins, the election is widely seen as a chance for Zimbabwe to embark on a new path after years of autocratic rule, moving in step with a region that is increasingly democratic and integrated in the global economy.
The United States and European Union have been clear that a credible election is their foremost condition for the lifting of sanctions on various Mugabe-era officials and their family members, as well as for backing a bailout for Zimbabwe from the International Monetary Fund.
Long lines at polling stations indicated that turnout was strong, and there were few reports of irregularities. Elmar Brok, head of the E.U.’s election observer mission, issued a statement before voting closed on Monday, saying that in some cases voting was “very smooth” and in others “totally disorganized.”
In the lead-up to the election, however, opposition and civil rights groups documented widespread state-sponsored intimidation and vote-buying.
The two front-runners have promised the same basic things: foreign investment, jobs and dignity. But their vastly different backgrounds underscore very distinct appeals.
Mnangagwa is a member of the old guard of the ruling party, ZANU-PF. Like Mugabe, he has bona fides from Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against white rule in the 1970s. For decades, he served in Mugabe’s cabinet, and he is accused of being closely involved in some of his worst abuses of power, including a massacre in the 1980s, repeated election-rigging and often-brutal political violence.
With Mugabe’s popularity and the economy in a downward spiral, Mnangagwa collaborated with the military to force the 94-year-old to resign in November. Mnangagwa became president and the army’s top general his deputy. While Mnangagwa has trumpeted his ability to transform Zimbabwe, gradual change is what he would ensure.
Chamisa was barely a toddler when Zimbabwe gained independence. If elected, he would join a slowly growing number of reformers who have taken the helm of African countries at a time when the continent is seeing a giant youth bulge.
He led chaotic anti-Mugabe protests in 1999 and joined the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, which became Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. He quickly rose through its ranks and became its president when its longtime leader died of cancer in February. While operating on a small budget, his party has managed to draw giant crowds to rallies, something that was once unthinkable.
“We are like oil and water,” Chamisa said of Mnangagwa in an interview with The Washington Post. “I am the water. I am the clear break with the past.”
While Monday’s voting was peaceful, underlying tensions in the coming days could spark violence. Both candidates have told their supporters that victory is assured, setting the stage for a disputed result whichever way it goes.
Chamisa has already alleged that the vote is not credible and that the independent election commission is acting on the ruling party’s behalf. He has said that his supporters “know what to do” if Mnangagwa wins.
Speaking off the record, diplomats and international election observers said their concerns are focused on the crucial period when results are being tabulated. Should there be reports, true or not, of electoral manipulation, confrontations between ZANU-PF and MDC supporters could get out of control, or the candidates themselves could foment conflict.
Both men have attracted support that is fervent, bordering on militant.
“We are 120 percent behind E.D. He is the father of a new Zimbabwe,” said Sandra Manyika, who attended Mnangagwa’s final rally on Saturday along with tens of thousands of others at the National Sports Stadium. Mnangagwa is widely referred to by his first two initials, E.D. “He has brought us a second independence. Nothing can stop that.”
While Mnangagwa’s supporters generally exuded confidence, Chamisa’s were filled with yearning. Many of them are young and jobless. At least 1 million Zimbabweans have migrated to neighboring South Africa in search of work. Astronomical inflation led Mugabe to ditch the national currency in 2009 for the U.S. dollar, which is in very short supply here. Some rural communities have resorted to barter in the absence of cash.
“I cannot live my whole life in this kind of Zimbabwe,” said Earnest Kudzayi, a student who added that he was not scared to speak openly about supporting Chamisa. “Mugabe suffocated us, and E.D. will do the same.”
On Sunday, on the eve of the election, Mugabe inserted himself into the campaign for the first time. In an extraordinary news conference, he denounced ZANU-PF, which he founded, and implied that he would vote for Chamisa.
Mnangagwa quickly disseminated a video claiming that Mugabe and Chamisa had “forged a deal.”
“You either vote for Mugabe under the guise of Chamisa or you vote for a new Zimbabwe under my leadership,” Mnangagwa said. Both Mugabe and Chamisa denied that they had ever spoken.
The election campaign showed improvements over the Mugabe years, with greater freedom of expression, but it retained remnants of the authoritarian system he put in place. Polls show that trust in the election’s credibility is highly polarized.
“There comes a time when a country gets an opportunity for a sharp departure from the past,” said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former president of Liberia and lead observer for the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, who monitored voting at a school Monday morning. “Only a fairly free election can provide that. In Zimbabwe, and in Africa, this is desperately needed.”