Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary elections got off to a chaotic start Wednesday morning, with voters encountering frustrating delays. Many polling stations in the country’s largest urban centers opened hours late because ballots had not been delivered on time.
Lines stretched hundreds of people deep. Fliers suggesting, falsely, that the main opposition party did not want people to vote were scattered about the streets of the capital, Harare.
The ominous start to a voting process with high stakes for the nation, the region and the world seemed to bolster fears that Zimbabwe, a southern African nation of 16 million, was once again headed for an election that would be widely viewed as rigged.
“I am now doubting if these elections will produce credible results because if the start is this bad, it means nothing good will happen at the end,” said Samuel Mhlanga, standing in a line of more than 500 voters waiting for their polling station at a primary school in Harare to open.
Economic turmoil over the past two decades in Zimbabwe has left millions of people suffering and put a strain on neighboring countries as well.
Political instability has made Zimbabwe a pariah of the United States and other Western nations, which have imposed sanctions but are looking for ways to engage with the country because of its natural resources — and to offset the influence of Russia and China on the continent.
Many domestic and international experts were likening this election to previous votes that kept Robert Mugabe, the former liberation leader turned autocrat, in power for 37 years before his ouster in a coup.
The police have cracked down on opponents of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the incumbent, whose ZANU-PF party has governed the country since independence in 1980. The authorities have banned some civil society leaders and reporters from foreign news outlets from entering the country to cover the elections, including The New York Times.
Nearly 6 in 10 Zimbabweans believe that corruption has grown worse under Mr. Mnangagwa’s watch, and more than 70 percent say the country is going in the wrong direction, according to Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research firm that conducts surveys across Africa.
“Mnangagwa’s policies have not delivered,” said Vince Musewe, an economist based in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “They have had a negative social impact in the sense that the lifestyle and quality of life of ordinary Zimbabweans has not improved. It’s actually gotten worse.”
Here is what to know about the vote.
Who’s running, and when will there be a result?
Eleven presidential candidates are on the ballot. The clear front-runners are Mr. Mnangagwa, running in his second election, and Nelson Chamisa, who challenged Mr. Mnangagwa in 2018 and now leads a new party, Citizens Coalition for Change.
Mr. Mnangagwa, 80, fought to liberate the country from the British colonial government, which imprisoned him for 10 years for bombing a train. A former practicing lawyer, Mr. Mnangagwa served as state security chief and rose to become Mr. Mugabe’s vice president.
Mr. Chamisa, 45, was a youth leader in his previous party and joined Parliament two decades ago.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and the paper ballots that voters cast are expected to be counted the same night. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will head to a runoff in October.
Also up for grabs are 280 seats in the national assembly, 60 in the Senate, 100 in provincial councils and 2,572 in local councils.
The results of the elections must be announced within five days of voting.
What’s the biggest issue?
Economists estimate that around 90 percent of working people do not have formal employment and make money with odd jobs like selling vegetables along the road. An exodus of hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Zimbabweans who have left the country looking for work has strained relations with neighboring nations, especially South Africa.
Christopher Mutsvangwa, the spokesman for ZANU-PF, said Mr. Mnangagwa had placed the country on a path to economic success, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Chinese companies are investing in mining in the country. He also said Mr. Mnangagwa had helped small farmers thrive, which has given a boost to rural areas. “We get a reward from the voter because we are changing people’s lives,” he said.
An Afrobarometer poll in April and May showed Mr. Mnangagwa leading with 37 percent of the vote, compared with 28 percent for Mr. Chamisa. But just over a third of respondents would not reveal their choice or said they did not know whom they would vote for.
What’s at stake?
The outcome of the election, and how it unfolds, will affect Zimbabwe’s efforts to restore its broken economy and the way it positions itself toward the rest of the world.
The West has for years demanded clean elections from Zimbabwe as a prerequisite for lifting sanctions and winning investments that could help the country overcome its economic woes, including getting out from under $18 billion worth of debt. A U.S. law essentially prevents Zimbabwe from receiving support from international financial institutions like the World Bank.
The two candidates have different views of the West. Mr. Mnangagwa has leaned into alliances with China and Russia. His re-election could deepen those ties and distance Zimbabwe further from the West.
Mr. Chamisa, though, has shown an eagerness to engage with the United States and Europe.
Is the election shaping up to be free and fair?
Many domestic and international experts say it’s not.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a fact pattern over recent months that suggests that a free and fair election is in doubt,” Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in an interview with Voice of America this month.
Ms. Phee pointed to the recent passage of the “Patriotic Bill,” a broadly worded law that makes betraying the national interest potentially punishable by death.
In the lead-up to the election, more than 100 events organized by Citizens Coalition for Change have been banned or disrupted by the police, and the party’s supporters have been attacked, leading to at least one death, said Fadzayi Mahere, the spokeswoman for the party.
The fliers scattered around on election morning bore a picture of Mr. Chamisa and the C.C.C. logo and said: “ELECTION IS STOLEN. DO NOT VOTE!!!”
To many, the slow start to voting only confirmed suspicions that the national electoral commission, stacked with officials close to ZANU-PF, was working in favor of the ruling party. Some voters noted that the delays were primarily in urban areas, which typically favor opposition parties.
The electoral commission said in a statement that the delays, which affected most polling sites in Harare, resulted from court challenges that led to a delay in printing ballots.