[UPDATE, July 30: Polls closed in Zimbabwe at 7 p.m. local time.]
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — On July 30, Zimbabwe is holding its first general elections without former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time. Until November, Mugabe was the only president the country had known since its independence in 1980. He resigned on Nov. 21, 2017, after the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), his political party, fired him and began the impeachment process.
Now, Zimbabweans are casting their ballots for a new president, as well as for parliamentary and local council members, and experts expect record voter turnout.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, more than 5 million people have registered to vote. Among them, experts say, are new contingents of young people, women and people in rural areas who say the end of Mugabe’s 37-year-rule has ushered in an era of freedom of political expression.
“The exiting from the political stage of Robert Mugabe is one of the main reasons for the likelihood of a good voter turnout,” says Thomas Sithole, executive director of Plumtree Development Trust, a human rights organization. “Mugabe’s ouster has opened up space for political participation, also witnessed by freedom of expression currently being enjoyed by citizens.”
There is likely to be higher voter turnout than in the 2013 election, which Mugabe easily won, Sithole says. This time around, many say they expect a close race.
“It will be a neck-and-neck between Nelson Chamisa and Emmerson Mnangagwa,” says Dumisani Nkomo, a political analyst in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, and CEO of Habakkuk Trust, a local Christian nonprofit.
Michael Mhlanga, a political analyst also from Bulawayo, says that numerous surveys he’s observed point to a ZANU-PF win.
Earnest Mudzengi, a communications expert based in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, predicts that between 60 to 90 percent of registered voters will cast a ballot.
Voter turnout will be particularly high in rural areas, says Admire Mare, a media expert.
“ZANU-PF was clever in terms of commandeering their supporters to register during the BVR [Biometric Voter Registration] process,” he says.
The BVR process allows electoral bodies to register millions of voters quickly by using their fingerprints. In Zimbabwe, the BVR process began in October and ended in February.
Despite their predictions, experts say, there is a lack of diverse and reliable polling in the country.
“It’s difficult to conduct polls in a context riddled with fear of surveillance and fear of being killed for speaking out truth to power,” Mare says, calling Zimbabwe an “abnormal political laboratory for social scientists.”
Afrobarometer, a research network that regularly conducts surveys in Zimbabwe, is considered the most reliable source of polling data. But, Mare says, many respondents in Afrobarometer surveys may not have revealed whom they will vote for, and the political environment is constantly shifting.
“A day in politics is long enough to tilt the balance of power,” he says.