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Bomb explodes at Zanu PF candidate's home

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VOTING in Zimbabwe's critical general elections ended Saturday night with polling stations closed after a day that watchdog organisations said was without major controversy.

"From what we have observed of the voting, there have been minimal problems," said Noel Kututwa, chairman of independent local monitor the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). "We didn't anticipate major problems. The problems come in the counting and collating."

Counting began immediately after polling stations closed at 7PM, and the first results were expected on Sunday morning.

With the economy in ruins and most Zimbabweans living in hunger and penury, President Robert Mugabe, is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he came to power in 1980, from Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of a faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and from Simba Makoni, his former finance minister.

Makoni is said to have caused major divisions in the 84-year-old ruler's Zanu PF party by his decision to challenge Mugabe, as an independent.

Elections for the two chambers of parliament and for local councils are being held concomitantly.

No estimate of turnout was offered by the official Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, but Kutuwa said that it had been "high".

The queues outside polling stations were not as large as expected, but he said it was explained both by the fact that the number of polling stations since the last presidential election in 2002 had doubled, and by the inflated size of the voters' roll, put officially at 5.9 million but more reliably estimated at 3.5 million.

He said there were also large numbers of people who had been turned away, mostly because of changes to the constituency system which meant that people now had to vote in the wards (districts) in which they lived. Previously, they could vote in any ward in their constituency.

Observers have reported a dramatic surge in support for former national labour leader Tsvangirai and Makoni in the last month, said to have been unleashed after waves of violence that preceded every other election since 2000 did not materialise.

Tsvangirai particularly has drawn large and wildly enthusiastic crowds to his campaign rallies, penetrating for the first time, the underdeveloped, poverty stricken rural areas where Mugabe has held almost exclusive sway in the past. All over the country are open and constant calls for "change".

"It's obvious," grinned Edgar Takundwa when asked Saturday how he had voted in the Harare township of Warren Park. "We are suffering. We are starving."

Wellington Phiri, an elderly labourer was on his way to vote when he said: "He (Mugabe) is 84 and he been in the job for 28 years. Now he wants more! What for? He must go."

Mugabe, when he voted in the capital, predicted "overwhelming victory" for himself and Zanu PF, but added: "If one loses the election and one is rejected by the people, one should accept it is time to go."

Tendai Biti, secretary general of Tsvangirai's MDC, said: "It is beyond reasonable doubt that the people's victory is on course."

Independent observers have dismissed Mugabe's victory in the three elections since 2000 as the result of brutal intimidation, electoral laws heavily skewed in the ruling party's favour and outright rigging.

Observers say the atmosphere of excitement and hope for change surrounding Saturday's election is undermined by deep anxiety that Mugabe will "steal the vote" again.

The government has banned observers from "hostile" Western countries and accredited only a handful of foreign journalists, although press conferences are filled with correspondents from all over the world, most of them operating "illegally".

The MDC Saturday was already crying foul over the polls, saying ruling party supporters had burnt down the home of a party election agent in the remote northern area of Muzarabanhi and that election agents in the town of Concession, about 50 kilometres north of Harare, had found six "unlawful" ballot boxes.

In the second largest city of Bulawayo, a parliamentary election candidate for Zanu PF had her home petrol-bombed by unknown assailants overnight. She escaped unhurt.

Kututwa said that there had been several instances where opposition election agents and observers had been refused entry to polling stations, and expressed concern about the potentially intimidatory presence of large numbers of paramilitary police around polling stations. - Sapa

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