JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Zimbabweans lined up for hours to vote Wednesday in an election that international critics say has no hope of being free or fair.
President Robert Mugabe, the country's only leader in its 33-year history since independence from Britain, dismissed fears the country could once again be headed for a disputed result.
“I’m sure that people will vote freely and fairly. There’s no pressure being exerted on anyone," the 89-year-old Mugabe told reporters after casting his vote. ”So far, so good."
Responding to claims of vote rigging by his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, with whom he has shared power in an uneasy unity government, Mugabe said: "That’s politicking. They want to find a way out."
The snaking lines at polling places suggested a strong voter turnout. But there were reports that many people were turned away because their names did not appear on the voter rolls, and complaints that election officials were working too slowly to enable all would-be voters to cast ballots.
The voter roll in Zimbabwe has long been plagued with discrepancies, and opposition and civil society groups have campaigned in vain to have ghost voters and duplicate names removed. Zimbabwean electoral authorities only released the roll on Monday and refused to provide parties access to an easily searchable electronic version.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change raised objections as reports emerged that there were hundreds of thousands of duplicate names and people well over the age of 100 listed on the roll.
Tsvangirai, 61, a former union official, once survived an attempt by ruling ZANU-PF party thugs to throw him out of his office window and on another occasion had his skull broken in a police beating. He voted Wednesday with his wife, Elizabeth Macheka, at his side, calling the election an emotional moment "after all the conflict, the stalemate, the suspicion, the hostility."
"This is a very historic moment for us," he told the French news agency Agence France-Presse, predicting a resounding victory for his party.
Opinion polls in Zimbabwe are not reliable, in part because many people are afraid to tell strangers how they plan to vote, given the intimidation by the ruling party in past elections.
Mugabe said Tuesday he would stand down if he lost this election, a promise he has made in previous polls.
In past elections, however, Mugabe's party and security chiefs have unleashed thugs across the country to terrorize, beat, abduct and kill supporters of Tsvangirai's party.
While this election has seen less violence, the United States has expressed doubts about its credibility. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Washington was worried about the "lack of transparency in electoral preparations, by the continued partisan behavior of state security institutions, and by the technical and logistical issues hampering the administration of a credible and transparent election."
Western observers have been barred. The African Union mission has already been criticized for its claim that preparations for the election were satisfactory.
If no presidential candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the election will go to a runoff, which would likely raise fears of a repeat of the violence and intimidation that occurred between the two rounds in the 2008 presidential vote.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round in 2008 because of the bloodshed. Some 200 people were killed.
Regional leaders pulled together the ensuing unity government, but failed to ensure that the accompanying road map for political and institutional reform was followed.
One of the key elements of that road map was that Mugabe could not unilaterally call an election. However he did just that, despite objections from Tsvangirai that many of the institutional reforms necessary for a free and fair vote were not in place.
More than 6 million people were registered to vote Wednesday in the nation of around 13 million.
Economic conditions have improved since the rampant hyperinflation, food shortages and economic collapse that preceded the 2008 election.
Under the unity government, Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency and embraced the U.S. dollar and South African rand. Schools have reopened, hospitals are functioning, and the country has regained a semblance of stability.
Even so, millions of Zimbabweans prefer to seek employment in neighboring South Africa, the economic powerhouse of the region. None of the Zimbabweans in the diaspora were able to vote Wednesday.