Zimbabweans began voting on Monday in the first election since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe, a watershed vote they hope will rid the country of its global pariah status and spark a recovery in its failed economy.
The election will see 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time Mugabe ally, face 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who is vying to become Zimbabwe’s youngest head of state.
Voting started at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will end at 7 p.m.
Polls give former intelligence chief Mnangagwa, who took over as president after the army ousted Mugabe in a bloodless coup in November, only a slim lead over Chamisa.
There will be a runoff on Sept. 8 if no candidate wins more than half the votes. About 5.5 million voters are registered to vote on Monday.
Nicknamed “the Crocodile”, an animal famed in Zimbabwean lore for its stealth and ruthlessness, Mnangagwa has pledged to revive a moribund economy, attract foreign investment and mend racial and tribal divisions.
Chamisa, a charismatic speaker who honed his craft in the courtroom and the pulpit, has won over young and unemployed voters who are frustrated with nearly four decades of Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) rule.
In a surprise intervention on Sunday, Mugabe said he would vote for the opposition, turning on his one-time allies.
Whoever wins will face the mammoth task of putting Zimbabwe back on track after 37 years of Mugabe rule that was tainted by corruption, mismanagement and diplomatic isolation, sending one of Africa’s most promising economies into crisis.