Zimbabweans are voting in what many hope will be something the country has never seen before: a free and fair election, without the interference of former leader Robert Mugabe.
The landmark vote has been touted as the first time the African nation will hold an election without the former strongman in almost four decades, but although Mugabe is not on the ballot, his influence continues to be felt.
The now-disgraced 94-year-old could not resist stepping back into the political arena on the eve of the vote. In his first major political statement since being ousted from office last November, Mugabe said he would not vote for his former party Zanu-PF or the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“I can’t vote for Zanu-PF. I can’t vote for the people who have brought me into this state,” Mugabe said during a press conference in the garden of his home in Harare on Sunday.
“I must say clearly I cannot vote for those who have tormented me. I can’t,” the ailing former revolutionary added. “I will make my case among the other 22 (out of the 23 candidates).”
On Monday afternoon Mugabe cast his ballot in Highfield, a suburb of Harare.
Now, Mnangagwa is president and head of the Mugabe’s former party Zanu-PF.
At stake in the landmark presidential election is a chance for Zimbabwe to finally shed its reputation as a pariah state, and move to a democracy free from international sanctions.
The country, which suffered crippling hyperinflation under Mugabe, desperately needs the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to start giving it loans again. It also needs the United States, European Union and others to lift sanctions.
But those restrictions will remain in place until a free and fair election takes place — anything less, and in international eyes at least, it may as well be Mugabe still in power.
“The elections, if free and fair, provide an opportunity to establish a strong opposition presence in parliament for the first time since 1987 or to even topple Zanu-PF,” Heike Schmidt, associate professor in modern African history at the University of Reading in England, told CNN.
“What one can say so far is that pre-election violence and intimidation appears to be less than on previous such occasions and that President Mnangagwa appears utterly confident in his election victory.”