Zimbabweans queued before dawn to vote on Saturday in the most crucial election since independence in 1980, many of them desperate to end the misery of economic collapse under veteran President Robert Mugabe.
"I am voting for change. I am praying for a free and fair election. It is the only way this country can move forward," said Richard Mutedzi, 25, a trained mechanic who voted in Chitungwiza, 30 km south of Harare.
He said he was forced to sell odds and ends because of lack of work.
Zimbabwe, its once prosperous economy in ruins, is suffering the world's highest inflation rate at more than 100,000 per cent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.
"I want to vote because things are so bad, and maybe this election will help change that," said a 35-year-old security guard who asked not to be named. He had walked for more than two hours to reach his polling station in a Harare township.
Mugabe faces the biggest challenge of his 28-year rule from veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni. Some people slept at polling stations and queues formed before they opened just after 7am (0500 GMT). Voting was scheduled to last 12 hours, with results not expected for several days.
"I can't say Zimbabweans are cowards or that they are cautious. They are peace loving people but if Mugabe steals the election there will surely be trouble in this country," red-eyed Leo Kariwo said as he waited to vote in Harare's low income Mufakose township.
Both Tsvangirai and Makoni say Mugabe plans to rig the election.
In the middle class suburb of Greendale, 400 people were queuing by the time the polling station opened. One man turned up in his pyjamas.
"A new government, that's what I need. What we need is an intelligent, well-managed government that will satisfy the needs of Zimbabweans in all walks of life," said white voter Nadia Marabini.
In the low-income township of Warren Park more than 200 voters surged forward when the polling station gates opened. "People are dying in hospitals and funeral expenses are very high. How do you expect us to survive? Shop shelves are empty," said mother of three Gertrude Muzanenhamo, 36.
His two rivals believe they can finally end Mugabe's iron rule because of an economic meltdown that has reduced even his traditional and favoured rural strongholds to misery.
Despite odds stacked against him like never before, few analysts are prepared to count Mugabe out.
They say he has maintained a tight grip on power through a combination of ruthless security crackdowns, intimidation of ruling party rivals and an elaborate patronage system. A split opposition may also favour the former guerrilla leader.
Supporters both inside the country and elsewhere in Africa still revere Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain, as the last of the liberation heroes.
Zimbabwe's powerful security forces have thrown their backing behind Mugabe, stoking accusations that he will use his incumbent power to rig victory.
Voters on Saturday said police and army units backed by armoured vehicles and water cannons had patrolled overnight.
"That is intimidation but we will not be cowed. We have nothing to lose my friend but we are hungry, I tell you," said Samuel Furutsa outside a polling station in the Harare township of Mufakose. The state-owned Herald newspaper reported on Friday that an opinion poll showed Mugabe would win up to 57 per cent of the vote, which analysts saw as a way of preparing the population for his victory. The poll was conducted by a university lecturer seen as sympathetic to the government.
Tsvangirai and Makoni have accused Mugabe of planning to declare victory with almost 60 per cent of the vote after a fraudulent count.
Mugabe blames the economic collapse on sanctions by former colonial power Britain and other Western nations.
"This is a vote against the British. The fight is not against the MDC ... the MDC is just a puppet, a mouthpiece of the British," he said in one of his last rallies on Friday.
If no candidate wins more than 51 per cent of the vote on Saturday, the election will go into a second round, when the two opposition parties would likely unite. Critics say Mugabe will do his utmost, including rigging, to avoid this happening. (Reuters)
Zimbabweans vote for change