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Zimbabwe in tense presidential vote

Supporters of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai sit in a tree during an election rally in Harare, July 29, 2013
Supporters of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai sit in a tree during an election rally in Harare on July 29, 2013. Zimbabweans began casting ballots Wednesday in a fiercely contested election dominated by Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his 33-year

Zimbabweans began casting ballots Wednesday in a fiercely contested election dominated by Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his 33-year rule and overshadowed by suspicions of vote rigging.

Voters, some wrapped in blankets on a cold winter morning, started queuing up at least four hours before polling stations opened.

The 89-year-old president, Africa's oldest leader, is running for election for the seventh and perhaps final time, after a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections.

But on the eve of the vote, Mugabe vowed to step down if he lost and claimed the army -- long the bulwark of his rule -- would also respect a victory for Morgan Tsvangirai, his perennial rival.

"If you lose you must surrender," the 89-year-old firebrand said at a rare press conference in Harare just hours before the polls opened at 0500 GMT.

Tsvangirai, who was forced out of the race in 2008 after 200 of his supporters were killed, told CNN he took Mugabe's promise "with a pinch of salt".

Zimbabwe prime minister and leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, addresses a rally in Harare on July 29, 2013
Zimbabwe prime minister and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, addresses his final campaign rally in Harare on July 29, 2013.

While this year's campaign has seen little of the bloodshed that marred the 2008 election, the 61-year-old former trade union leader has raised alarm about silent manipulation.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change on Tuesday handed what it claimed was documentary evidence of plans to rig the election to observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The dossier, which was seen but could not be independently verified by AFP, listed examples of duplicate or questionable voters gleaned from a initial examination of the electoral roll.

In June, the Research and Advocacy Unit, a non-government group, said after examining an incomplete roll that it included a million dead voters or emigres, as well as over 100,000 people who were more than 100 years old.

Zimbabwe president and Zanu PF presidential candidate, Robert Mugabe, speaks at a press briefing on July 30, 2013
Zimbabwe president and Zanu PF presidential candidate, Robert Mugabe, speaks at a press briefing on July 30, 2013 at the State House.

"We have seen a lot of duplicate names in the roll, where you see somebody is registered twice, same date of birth, same physical address but with a slight difference in their ID number," junior minister Jameson Timba told AFP.

An SADC observer who asked not to be named said the MDC dossier raised serious questions.

"It's not normal. If the roll had been released two weeks ago, these kind of problems would have been fixed."

At the US State Department Tuesday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed Washington's doubts about the way the vote would be run.

"We do remain concerned about the lack of transparency in electoral preparations by continued partisan behaviour, by state security institutions, and by the technical and logistical issues hampering the administration of a credible and transparent election," she said.

Mugabe vehemently denied ever rigging the vote. "We have done no cheating, never ever."

A man cycles past posters of Robert Mugabe in the Zimbabwean capital Harare on July 30, 2013
A man cycles past posters of Robert Mugabe in the Zimbabwean capital Harare on July 30, 2013. The veteran Zimbabwe President has vowed to step down if he loses the fiercely-contested election, as his rivals claim they have concrete evidence of vote riggin

Late Tuesday the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was ordered to fully publish the roll by 1000 GMT Wednesday. But with the vote well underway, that leaves little time to correct problems.

Electoral commission chief, justice Rita Makarau said the delayed access to the roll had affected all parties "equally".

"It has not affected one political party, so in a way it remains unfair to all political players," she told the parties' representatives on Tuesday.

Some 6.4 million people, around half of the population of 12.9 million Zimbabweans, are eligible to cast ballots at 9,670 polling stations across the country.

Either man needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off and both appear confident they can manage that feat.

Mugabe has focused his campaign on bashing homosexuals and on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.

Amid recovery from an economic crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested".

Credible opinion polls are rare, but according to one survey by the US-based Williams firm in March-April, Mugabe could be in for a rough ride.

In a survey of 800 Zimbabweans, 61 percent said they had a favourable view the MDC compared with 27 percent for Mugabe's ZANU-PF.

The poll showed Tsvangirai leading in seven of 10 provinces and that only 34 percent of those who voted for Mugabe in 2008 back him for president this time around.

Tsvangirai hopes his plans to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a long-awaited victory.

Outside the aspirants' promises voters are far more concerned first with peace, then economic growth and jobs creation.

Polling stations open at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and close 12 hours later.

Final results are expected with five days.

The elections will also chose lawmakers and local government councillors.

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