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Zimbabweans go to the polls

Polls open at 5am and close at 5pm with the results expected within the five-day legal limit.

A voter registration official inspects identity particulars at Lotshe Primary School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe during a mobile voter registration exercise. Picture: AFP

HARARE - Zimbabweans go to the polls on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has vowed to push Africa's oldest leader into retirement after 33 years in power.

With no reliable opinion polls, it is hard to say whether the 61-year-old Tsvangirai will succeed in his third attempt to unseat the 89-year-old Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.

Both sides are forecasting landslide wins but, in a country with a history of election violence, the bigger question is whether the loser will accept the result of a poll dogged by logistical problems and allegations of vote-rigging.

Asked on the eve of the vote if he and his ZANU-PF party would accept defeat, Mugabe was unequivocal: "If you go into a process and join a competition where there are only two outcomes, win or lose, you can't be both. You either win or lose. If you lose, you must surrender."

A spokesperson for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the party was prepared only to accept the results if the poll was "free and fair."

Mugabe's words were in marked contrast to the thrust of what he described as an "energy-sapping" campaign, and may tamp down fears of a repeat of the violence that broke out after he lost the first round of an election in 2008.

Around 200 Tsvangirai supporters were killed in the unrest before South Africa brokered a power-sharing deal that stopped the bloodshed and stabilised the economy, but established a government characterised as fractious and dysfunctional.

Western election observers have been barred from the elections, leaving the task of independent oversight to 500 regional and 7,000 domestic monitors.

Polls open at 05:00 and close at 17:00, with the results expected well within the five-day legal limit. Around 6.4 million people, or half the population, are registered to vote.

The verdict of observers is crucial to the future of Zimbabwe's economy, which is still struggling with the aftermath of a decade-long slump and hyperinflation that ended in 2009 when the worthless Zimbabwe dollar was scrapped.

If it gets broad approval, there is a chance that Western sanctions may be eased, allowing Harare to normalise relations with the IMF and World Bank and access the huge amounts of investment needed to rebuild its dilapidated economy.