HARARE, Zimbabwe — A high court ordered Sunday that this country's landmark presidential election be extended into today after long lines of would-be voters continued to besiege polling places here in the capital well beyond the 7 p.m. deadline.
But the government said it would appeal the ruling, sparking fears among opposition supporters that incumbent Robert Mugabe might use a presidential decree to close the polls, which could trigger widespread civil unrest.
Residents in some high-density Harare townships who had waited more than 12 hours to cast their ballots Saturday--the first day of voting--returned before dawn Sunday after their first bids to register their choices had failed. Hundreds slept in lines in front of polling places in order to retain their spots.
"They are obviously trying to keep us from voting," said one man, who gave his name as Tosto and who by noon Sunday had spent more than 15 hours waiting in line at a polling place in Glen View, a township on the outskirts of Harare. "But even if it's five days, we are going to stay to vote."
The election, considered to be the most bitterly contested in Zimbabwe's 22-year history, pits Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front against Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist and the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change.
Three lesser-known candidates are also in the running but are expected to garner an insignificant fraction of the votes. Voters in the capital were also casting ballots for mayoral and local council positions.
Analysts said the extension could work to the advantage of the MDC, even though they said many flaws in the electoral process had already prevented the vote from being free and fair.
"This is significant," said John Makumbe, a local political analyst and chairman of the Zimbabwe branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog. "It is largely going to benefit the MDC, because voting in rural areas has effectively ended, because the turnout has not been so high and because there were many more polling stations in the rural areas."
Critics Call Slow Pace of Balloting a Trick
Government critics charged that the slow pace of allowing people to vote was a deliberate attempt to frustrate MDC supporters in Harare, which is widely considered to be an opposition stronghold.
But George Charamba, the country's secretary of state for information and publicity, insisted that the lines at several polling places in the capital were not genuine.
"That was the strategy of the MDC," he said. "What they did was to bring in their youth, some of whom had already voted, so as to create the impression that we needed an extra day."
Charamba said that elsewhere in the country, voting was completed before the deadline and that by 7 p.m. Sunday, polling places were virtually empty.
"In rural areas, we are already dismantling our polling stations," he said. "It won't make sense to extend [voting] just for this part of the country."
Before the election, the government cut the number of polling places in urban areas, where the MDC dominates, and increased the number in rural areas, where the ruling party enjoys the majority of its support.
MDC officials said they had hoped for an even longer extension--possibly two extra days--but expressed hope that one day would be enough. Lawyers for the party said the government's appeal could not prevent polling places from opening today.
"The [court] order will continue to apply notwithstanding the appeal," said Innocent Chagonda, a lawyer for the MDC. He noted that if the government's appeal proved successful, "it would be obvious that the vote was not free and fair."
Pro-Mugabe Militias Are Blamed for Violence
The run-up to the election was marred by violence and intimidation, which opposition politicians and human rights officials blamed largely on pro-government militias.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an umbrella group of local independent monitors, reported that in the traditional ruling party stronghold of Mashonaland West on Saturday, MDC voting monitors had been chased from one polling place and their identity cards seized. The observer group also said it had received reports that about 60 MDC voting monitors had been abducted.
But opposition leaders said the long lines at polling places in the urban centers were testament to the fact that harassment had failed to keep voters away from the polls.
"People are so determined to exercise their right," said Paul Madzore, an MDC member of parliament. "We did not expect voter apathy here."
Political analyst Makumbe warned of turmoil if the government's appeal of the voting extension succeeded or if Mugabe tried to close the polls by presidential decree.
"There is a very strong possibility of civil strife," Makumbe said. "A lot of people in the queues are saying, 'We are not leaving without voting.' ZANU-PF militias could try to drive them off, and that could result in clashes."