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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 19:00 GMT
Delays hamper Zimbabwe poll
A man who waited hours to vote at the Kuwadzana polling station argues with a police officer
Long waits provoked angry scenes
Zimbabwe opposition leaders have accused officials of deliberately slowing down balloting as thousands of people queued to cast their votes on the first day of the hotly disputed presidential poll.

Tempers were wearing thin by the time polling officially ended for the day at 1700 GMT, and at one station in Harare voters angry at the long wait clashed with police.

President Mugabe voting in Harare
Mugabe is widely accused of persecuting opponents
Zimbabwe's Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, told the BBC that the polls could be kept open beyond their scheduled close on Sunday.

President Robert Mugabe is facing a strong challenge from Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The authorities said the delays were caused by a surprisingly high turnout and some stations stayed open beyond the official closing time.

But Mr Tsvangirai said that by reducing the number of places to vote in urban areas, where his support is strongest, the government was deliberately trying to undermine his chances.

"The intention, of course, is to ensure that you frustrate as many urban voters as you can," he said.

However, Mr Chinamasa said: "We are guaranteeing everyone the right to vote, and if it becomes necessary we will consider extending."

At some polling stations, where people began queuing in the middle of the night, as few as 60 people an hour were able to vote.


HAVE YOU VOTED?

We have just come back from an eight-hour queue to cast our votes in Harare. Our names were on the voters roll as they should have been, which was a relief

Les, Zimbabwe
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At least 12 people were injured when police used batons and tear gas to disperse voters who tried to push into a station in Harare's Kuwadzana township.

Correspondents say last-minute changes to the election laws, changes to the voter register and a reduction in the number of polling stations in urban areas, have slowed the process dramatically.

The 78-year-old Mr Mugabe - who is seeking a further six-year term as president - has dismissed accusations that the changes are designed to improve his chances of winning.

'Bias'

Casting his vote at a primary school in Highfield, a Harare suburb, Mr Mugabe accused the opposition and his international critics of having already decided that if he won, the election must have been rigged.

"It's bias against President Mugabe and bias in favour of the opposition.

"They want to direct events here and they don't want the president of Zimbabwe, the current president, to remain president," he said.

The election is seen as crucial for Zimbabwe's neighbours, as the country's economic crisis has hit regional trade - depriving South Africa of multi-million-dollar foreign investment - and created a new refugee problem.


Zimbabwe votes:
  • Leading candidates: President Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai
  • Polling stations open 0700 - 1900 (0500 - 1700 GMT) Saturday and Sunday
  • 5.6 million registered to vote
  • 4,548 polling stations within 120 constituencies

      Q&A: Election basics

      Regional reports

  • Mr Mugabe's opponents say misrule and controversial land grabs by his supporters are largely to blame for the crisis.

    The run-up to the election was marred by violence and reports on intimidation.

    There were fresh reports on Saturday that the government was preventing the deployment of some of the MDC's polling agents at polling stations.

    Almost six million Zimbabweans are eligible to vote, but there is still widespread confusion and concern about how the elections are being organised.

    An independent study found that voter registration lists were in disarray - with as many as half of the nation's voters registered in the wrong districts.

    And the number of international election observers is limited. The head of the South African team told the BBC he had visited six polling stations - out of a total of some 4,500.

     WATCH/LISTEN
     ON THIS STORY
    The BBC's Peter Biles
    "It was a frustrating experience for voters"
    Zimbabwe Election Support Network's Dr Matchaba-Hove
    "Less than 20% of people in some areas had voted by the end of the day"
    The Steve Biko Foundation's Xolele Mangcu
    "It is important to look beyond what is happening at the polling stations"

    Key stories

    The vote

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