DOMBOSHAWA, Zimbabwe — For Nyaradzai Majuru, the choice of how to cast her ballot was simple. Before she and her husband received a 2-acre plot of land that had been seized from a white farmer several years ago, they were penniless subsistence farmers on a scrap of communal land. Now, they grow green beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbages that they sell in the market.
“Our life is better now because of President Mugabe,” said Majuru, 27, her youngest child tied to her back with a blanket, referring to Robert Mugabe, 89, who has led this country since it shook off white rule in 1980. “I support him all the way.”
But for 40-year-old Elizabeth, a janitor at an agricultural college in this small farming town 20 miles north of the capital, life has only gotten worse under Mugabe’s rule. Hyperinflation wiped out her savings. Hunger gnawed at her family. A lucky few got land, but the country’s economy was destroyed, she said, declining to give her last name out of fear of reprisals by the government.
“We need change in this country,” Elizabeth said. “We are tired of this old man.”
They were among the millions of Zimbabweans who went to the polls on Wednesday in what many here are calling the most pivotal election since the nation voted out white rule. Despite frigid predawn temperatures, people lined up before the polling stations opened, eager to decide whether to end or extend the three-decade tenure of Mugabe, a liberation war hero who still holds a tight grip on the country.
In Harare, the capital, there was none of the violence and intimidation that characterized the disastrous 2008 presidential election season, when 200 people died in a state-sponsored crackdown on the opposition and others seen as supporting it.
“This is a huge change, the fact that people can stand around and talk openly about their views,” said Namo Mariga, an agribusiness entrepreneur, after casting his ballot in the upscale suburb of Borrowdale. “The atmosphere is much freer.”
The election pits Mugabe against former union organizer Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. Tsvangirai won the most votes in the first round of the election in 2008 but refused to participate in a runoff because of the deadly attacks on his supporters. A deal brokered by regional powers put the two rivals into an uneasy power-sharing agreement, and both are now seeking an outright victory to govern alone.
“It is quite an emotional moment sometimes when you see all these people after all the conflict, the stalemate, the suspicion, the hostility,” Tsvangirai said after casting his ballot. “I think there is a sense of calmness that finally Zimbabwe will be able to move on again.”
Sporadic problems were reported in a number of regions. Lines were long in urban areas, raising concerns that not everyone would be able to vote Wednesday. The challengers said the Zimbabwe Election Commission had deliberately reduced the number of polling stations in their strongholds to discourage voters, but the commission denied it. Some voters who registered recently found that their names were not on the rolls, but they were able to cast ballots using the registration receipt.
“We’ve already made clear this election is illegal, illegitimate, unfree, and unfair,” said Tendai Biti, the secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. “We are participating with a heavy heart.”
The planning for the election has been chaotic and rushed because Mugabe unilaterally set a much earlier election date than other political parties had anticipated.
But early reports from election officials and some monitors said that the voting had gone well. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria who is leading the African Union observer delegation, said that based on initial reports, the voting had been peaceful and orderly and appeared to be free and fair.
Joyce Kazembe, the deputy chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Election Commission, said, “I believe that the election is free and fair.” Turnout was high, the commission said, and it ordered that polling stations stay open until midnight to accommodate people waiting in lines.
Mugabe, after casting his ballot, appeared confident of victory in remarks to reporters. Asked if he would serve a full five-year term, he said: “Why not? Why should I field myself if it’s to cheat the people and I resign after?”
Fears of rigging remained high. Neil Padmore, 35, brought a pen to the polling station because he had heard people say that the government’s pens used special ink that would disappear a few hours after the ballot was cast.
“I am hoping that the sheer volume of the voters will prevent them from rigging,” said Padmore, who runs a company that lays fiber optic cable. “We need change in Zimbabwe. We can’t have this draconian environment.”