Early reports suggest Zimbabwe's elections have been "free and fair," the head of the African Union's monitoring team has said. Voter turnout was reportedly high despite initial allegations of fraud.
Shortly after polls began to close late on Wednesday the African Union's top poll observer reported the presidential election appeared to have gone smoothly.
"The conduct of the election... has been peaceful, orderly, free and fair," said former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, who is leading the AU's 69-member observation team.
"My hope is that this will be what the report will be from all polling stations throughout the country," he told reporters.
Although voting figures aren't yet available, observers said voter turnout was high with reports of long queues outside polling stations despite bitterly cold temperatures and widespread suspicions of electoral fraud in favor of long-time President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe's challenger Morgan Tsvangirai was joined by several non-governmental groups in expressing concern that the electoral roll, which was not released until the eve of the vote, could easily be manipulated. It was alleged the list contained many duplicate and ghost voters.
Confident of victory
Nevertheless both Mugabe and Tsvangirai, who is contesting the presidency for the third time, have predicted landmark wins for themselves.
As he voted in a middle class suburb of the capital Harare, the opposition challenger said he expected his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party would claim victory "quite resoundingly."
"After all the conflict, the stalemates, the suspicion, the hostility; I think there is a sense of calmness that finally Zimbabwe will be able to move on again," said the 61-year-old Tsvangirai. "This is a very historic moment for all of us," he said, adding it was time to "complete the change."
Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader at the age of 89, also cast his vote in the capital, claiming that he looked forward to a new term of office.
"It's an opportunity for the nation to demonstrate their own wishes as to what must be done and that, of course, means choosing the party they think can fulfill their wishes. In other words, give them a better life," he said. "I've got lots of things to do - repair our industries, which have collapsed; there's much work to be done in the mining sector."
However, Mugabe - who denies opposition allegations of vote rigging - said on Tuesday that would be prepared to step down after 33 years in office, if defeated. "If you lose you must surrender," he said, insisting: "We have done no cheating."
Alongside fears of voter fraud, concerns were rife that Wednesday's vote could see a repeat of the violence which marred Zimbabwe's previous election. The controversial 2008 vote saw violent clashes and complaints of widespread intimidation.
Some 6.4 million people, or half the population, were registered to vote in this year's election with results expected to be announced within a five-day deadline.
ccp/hc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)
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