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Agence France-Presse
Harare, July 31, 2013
Zimbabweans began casting ballots on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election dominated by Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his 33-year rule and overshadowed by suspicions of vote rigging.

The 89-year-old President, Africa's oldest leader, is running for election for the seventh and perhaps final time, after a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections.

This time Mugabe vowed to step down if he lost and claimed the army -- long the bulwark of his rule -- would also respect any victory for Morgan Tsvangirai, his perennial rival.

But few are taking him at his word.

Even Tsvangirai, who was forced out of the race in 2008 after 200 of his supporters were killed, told CNN he took Mugabe's promise "with a pinch of salt".

Determined to cast their ballots, voters, some wrapped in blankets on a cold winter morning, started queuing up at least four hours before polling stations opened.

Voting appeared to be brisk in many urban areas, which have traditionally recorded strong support for Tsvangirai.

At polling stations set up in green tents on an open field in Mbare, the capital's oldest township, several hundreds were standing in line.

At Epworth, a Harare township, 66-year-old Ellen Zhakata held back her tears after voting.

"I am happy to have cast my vote. I just want an end to the problems in our country," she said. "All my children are outside the country because of the economic troubles here. I am so lonely. How I wish they could be working here."

Millions of Zimbabwean were forced to migrate to find work elsewhere after an economic crisis which was exacerbated by the violence-marred 2008 elections.

Some 6.4 million people, around half of the population of 12.9 million Zimbabweans, are eligible to vote at 9,670 polling stations across the country.

A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off and both Mugabe and Tsvangirai appear confident they can manage that feat.

Mugabe has focused his campaign on bashing homosexuals and on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.

Amid recovery from an economic crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested".

Credible opinion polls are rare, but according to one survey by the US-based Williams firm in March-April, Mugabe could be in for a rough ride.

In a survey of 800 Zimbabweans, 61 percent said they had a favourable view of the MDC compared with 27 percent for Mugabe's ZANU-PF.

The poll showed Tsvangirai leading in seven of 10 provinces and that only 34 percent of those who voted for Mugabe in 2008 back him for president this time around.

Tsvangirai hopes his plans to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a long-awaited victory.

Polling stations will close at 7pm (1700 GMT). Final results are expected with five days.

The elections will also chose lawmakers and local government councillors.

In June, the Research and Advocacy Unit, an NGO, reported the existing roll included one million dead voters or people who have emigrated, as well as over 100,000 people aged over 100 years old.