Zimbabwe turnout `unprecedented'

Justice minister ready to extend voting time


HARARE, Zimbabwe - Voters in Zimbabwe turned out yesterday in what appeared to be record numbers for the first day of the country's long-awaited presidential election, hopeful that it would bring an end to years of political turmoil but fearful that it could touch off even more trouble.

Here in the capital, voters encountered lines that stretched for hundreds of yards, and last night the justice minister said he was prepared to allow voting beyond today if it became clear that more time would be needed to accommodate the "unprecedented" turnout. "There's no question of anyone being turned away because time has expired," the minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said in an interview last night.

Tawanda Hondora, a senior official with the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which is coordinating the work of several hundred local election observers, said that as the first day of voting came to a close, it was clear that more time would be needed.

"Very few people have actually voted, and it's not possible for most of the registered voters to have voted by the end of the day [today]," he said.

The election is the most important in Zimbabwe since blacks won majority rule in 1980. The leading challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his Movement for Democratic Change want to unseat President Robert G. Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

With the country struggling to feed itself, Mugabe and his party have never been so vulnerable. Both sides have been relentless in campaigns, and this week, they sent ominous signs about the outcome, each intimating that a victory by the other would be met with resistance.

In the chilly drizzle that fell early yesterday morning here in the capital, the outcome of the election seemed a long way off for the thousands of people who waited for hours to mark their ballots.

At the Makomva outdoor market in Glenview, north of the city center, the earliest arrivals began showing up just after midnight, and by 7 a.m., a line of at least 2,000 people had threaded itself among the rows of rickety stalls.

Waiting for hours to vote is not uncommon in many African countries. But in this election, critics say, long lines have been turned into a political weapon to drive down the urban vote, which is behind Tsvangirai. The number of polling places in urban centers such as Harare, the country's most populous city, was cut back, while the number in rural areas, Mugabe's strongholds, was increased.

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