By Nelson Banya and Nyasha Chingono
HARARE (Reuters) -Zimbabwe has extended voting in selected wards by a day after the late distribution of ballot papers delayed polling, according to a presidential decree issued late Wednesday.
Voters in the southern African country waited for hours to vote on Wednesday, saying they were hungry for change from economic chaos, but analysts were sceptical that the ruling ZANU-PF party would allow a credible election or any loosening of its stranglehold on power.
According to Zimbabwean law, voting is supposed to take place within one day.
The presidential notice listed 40 wards it said were affected by the delays. Although the named areas make up less than 1% of the country's 12,374 wards, they include 11 wards in the capital Harare, which has the highest number of registered voters.
According a notice from President Emmerson Mnangagwa announcing the extra day, the affected wards are in three of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces - opposition stronghold Harare, Mashonaland Central, where the ruling party is traditionally dominant, and Manicaland, which is a key battleground.
Mnangagwa is seeking re-election after a first term during which runaway inflation, currency shortages and sky-high unemployment left many Zimbabweans reliant on dollar remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet.
Mnangagwa, 80, took over when longtime strongman Robert Mugabe was toppled in a 2017 military coup. He faces 10 other candidates, including his main challenger, lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa, 45, of the Citizens Coalition for Change.
"I am expecting change. We are struggling and hungry," said Mabel Fambi, 67, who cares for five of her grandchildren because their parents cannot find jobs. She was waiting to cast her ballot in the Kuwadzana constituency in the capital Harare.
In Harare and the country's second biggest city Bulawayo, both opposition strongholds, a significant number of polling stations opened hours late, forcing voters to wait for most of the day.
"I see this delay as a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise me," said Fortune Sikireta, who had been waiting to vote since dawn at Maranatha Christian High School in the middle-income Harare suburb of Tynwald. By late afternoon he had yet to vote but was determined to see it through.
The electoral commission blamed the delays on late printing of ballot papers caused by court challenges, saying in a morning statement that only 23% of Harare's polling stations had opened on time.
Few or no delays were reported in other parts of the country.
Analysts said that, as in previous Zimbabwean elections, ZANU-PF, which has been in power for 43 years, had been using state institutions to ensure it would stay in power.
"The electoral playing field is heavily skewed in favour of the ruling party," said private firm Africa Risk Consulting.
LITTLE CHANGE SINCE MUGABE ERA
Zimbabwe's chances of resolving a debt crisis and obtaining World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans are at stake, as foreign lenders have said a free and fair election is a pre-condition for any meaningful talks.
"We want change. We want a younger president," said shoe mender Jonathan Darare, 47, who came out early to vote in Kuwadzana.
Polls had been scheduled to open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and close at 7 p.m., with some 6.6 million people registered to vote in the nation of about 15 million. Parliamentary results are expected to trickle in on Thursday morning. The presidential result is expected later, though well ahead of a five-day deadline.
Chamisa was mobbed by supporters chanting his name as he arrived to vote in Kuwadzana. He predicted he would win but said the ruling party and the electoral commission would seek to deny him his victory.
"Funny games or no funny games, our victory is certain. We are going to continue to insist on a credible election and making sure we have a legitimate result out of this election," he said.
The government and the electoral commission have said the election would be free and fair.
Mnangagwa voted at Sherwood Primary School in the city of Kwekwe.
The Zimbabwe dollar has fallen by about 85% since the start of 2023 and inflation has reached triple digits, pushing people deeper into poverty in a nation where only 30% hold formal jobs.
"Five years into Mnangagwa's rule, conditions have not changed much from the Mugabe era," said Africa Risk Consulting.
The Economist Intelligence Unit predicted Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF would win by a narrower margin and not by fair means, raising the risk of disputes over the results and public protests.
To win the presidency, a candidate must get more than 50% of the vote. If there is no outright winner, a run-off between the top two candidates will be held on Oct. 2.
Parliamentary and local council candidates only need a simple majority of votes cast.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Giles Elgood, Tomasz Janowski, William Maclean and Jonathan Oatis)