Harare — There is growing domestic and international pressure on the authorities in Zimbabwe to extend voting in the presidential election beyond Sunday night, the scheduled end of the two-day poll.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans, who queued for hours at polling stations in and outside the capital Harare on Saturday, were unable to cast their vote by the 7pm (1700 GMT) closing time on day one. Electoral officials were obliged to order voting places to remain open to ease the pressure of numbers.
By late Saturday, reports indicated that polling centres worst affected by the delays were still open for business. Most of these were in areas loyal to the main opposition presidential challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The call for the vote to be extended came first from Tsvangirai himself. It was swiftly echoed in a statement by the United States Embassy in Harare, on Saturday.
The United States urged the government of President Robert Mugabe to act urgently and to "immediately take the necessary remedial measures." "If the Zimbabwean government authorities do not take immediate steps to rectify these problems, they are likely to result in a massive disenfranchisement of urban voters," the embassy statement said.
Visiting polling stations around Harare, Tsvangirai concluded that the government, and Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, were deliberately using delaying tactics to limit the opposition vote. "Zanu-PF is now engaged in a last-ditch effort to stop people from voting it out of power, by ensuring that the voting process in MDC strongholds is slowed down," he told reporters. He cited the government's decision to reduce the number of polling centres in the city and blamed this for the congestion at so many election centres.
Tsvangirai said these efforts would be resisted and called on his supporters to vote massively and to remain patient. "We are trying to see if we can get an extension to the voting days. There is no way we can finish this within two days," he told thousands of MDC loyalists waiting to vote at one polling station in Harare.
The justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, later told both the BBC and Reuters that the government might consider granting an extension. "Everyone who wants to vote will be allowed to vote. If it becomes necessary, we will consider extending the voting period," he told the news agency and added, in an interview with the BBC, that this extension could last two days or more.
Zimbabwean voters began forming long, snaking queues early on Saturday morning and put up with chilly temperatures, grey skies and slight drizzle in some areas to be first in the line.
But by mid-afternoon tens of thousands were still waiting to vote. There was at least one violent incident in Harare, when frustrated voters clashed with police who used tear gas, rubber bullets and whips to keep the angry group in line and stop them from rushing a voting area. Independent observers say an extension of the vote could reduce tension, which has built up as voting proceeded at snail's pace.
High voter turnout in urban areas would favour Tsvangirai and the opposition MDC,who draw most of their support from Harare and other urban centres. Mugabe's followers are mainly rural dwellers.
All 19 of the constituencies in the capital voted MDC in the 2000 parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe. The registered electorate in Harare for the presidential poll accounts for 15 percent of the national vote.
Tsvangirai has accused Mugabe and his party of trying to steal the election by rigging the vote. But the Zimbabwean leader, who has dismissed these allegations, was confident of victory when he cast his ballot, amid tight security, at a school in the Highlands suburb of Harare on Saturday. "I will accept the result, more than accept it, because I will have won," Mugabe told reporters.
Political analysts say this close-run contest, which the opposition hopes will end Mugabe's 22 year monopoly on power in Zimbabwe, remains hard to predict.