Zimbabweans go to the polls on Monday in the first election since the removal of Robert Mugabe, a watershed vote they hope will rid the country of its global pariah status and spark a recovery in its failed economy.
The election will see 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, face 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
Polls give former intelligence chief Mnangagwa, who took over as president after the army ousted Mugabe in a bloodless coup last November, only a slim lead over Chamisa. That makes a runoff on Sept. 8 a possibility if no candidate wins more than half of the votes.
Nicknamed “the Crocodile”, an animal famed in Zimbabwean lore for its stealth and ruthlessness, Mnangagwa has pledged to revive a moribund economy, attract foreign investment and mend racial and tribal divisions.
“People are saying, and I share their views, that something special is coming to Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said at his final rally in Harare’s national stadium.
“Once re-elected on Monday with a real mandate for change and a full five-year term, I guarantee you it’s ‘Go and Go’ in our country. My commitment is to bring concrete change that will give comfort to all Zimbabweans.”
Chamisa, a charismatic speaker who honed his craft in the courtroom and the pulpit, is winning over young and unemployed voters who are frustrated with nearly four decades of Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) rule.
“The momentum is huge. Victory is certain. There is nothing that can stop the people of Zimbabwe claiming their victory,” Chamisa told reporters on Sunday.
“We are pulling out all the stops. We are leaving no stone unturned … to make sure we win this election.”
In a surprise intervention on Sunday, Mugabe said he would vote for the opposition, turning on his one-time allies. Mnangagwa later accused his former boss of striking a deal with Chamisa.
Whoever wins will face the huge task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule that was tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation, sending one of Africa’s most promising economies into crisis.