HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabweans waited in long lines Thursday to vote in parliamentary elections that President Robert Mugabe (search) hopes will prove the legitimacy of a regime critics say is increasingly isolated and repressive.
Before any ballots were cast, opposition leaders and independent rights groups said the vote was already skewed by years of violence and intimidation.
"I think we all agree on all benchmarks this is not going to be a free and fair election," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (search) said as he voted in a Harare suburb.
Encouraged by a marked drop in violence against the opposition in recent weeks, he remained optimistic that his Movement for Democratic Change (search) party could muster enough support to overturn Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (search).
Mugabe said he was "entirely, completely, totally optimistic" of victory, saying he only voted to increased his party's margin of success. He also dismissed the opposition's fears of fraud and said, "Everybody has seen that these are free and fair elections."
Mugabe accuses British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) and other Western leaders of backing the 6-year-old MDC, the first party to seriously challenge his rule. He dubbed Thursday's vote the "anti-Blair election" and MDC supporters "traitors."
The opposition counters that Thursday's election is about Mugabe's own failings after nearly 25 years in power.
Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk 50 percent over the past five years. Unemployment is at least 70 percent. Agriculture — the economic base of Zimbabwe — has collapsed and at least 70 percent of the population live in poverty.
Opposition leaders blame the country's economic troubles on the government's often violent seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.
Mugabe defends the program as a way of righting racial imbalances in land ownership inherited from British colonial rule and blames food shortages on years of crippling drought.
"My vote today will be a vote for Zimbabwe's sovereignty," said Thomas Mseruka, a 46-year-old carpenter and ardent government supporter in Harare.
At stake Thursday were 120 elected parliamentary seats. Mugabe appoints an additional 30 seats, virtually guaranteeing his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party a majority.
Under mounting international pressure, Mugabe promised this year's balloting would be free and fair.
The MDC, however, complained that a number of its election observers were turned away from polling stations. Mugabe's government also hand-picked foreign observers, barring groups that were critical of previous polls.
Some 5.8 million of Zimbabwe's nearly 12 million people were registered to vote. But up to 3.4 million Zimbabweans who live overseas — many of whom are believed to be opposition supporters — were barred from casting ballots.
MDC won 57 of Parliament's 120 elected seats in the last parliamentary election in 2000, despite what Western observers called widespread violence, intimidation and vote rigging. But it has lost six seats in subsequent by-elections.
In 2002, MDC leader Tsvangirai narrowly lost an equally flawed presidential poll.
Opposition leaders and rights groups said intimidation remained high leading up to Thursday's vote. Residents in drought-stricken rural areas were told they could forfeit desperately needed food aid if they voted for the opposition, rights groups said.
Anne Kwenzi, a first-time voter at age 21, said she put her ballot in the box without marking it because she heard her vote was not secret. Elsewhere, police and electoral officials were seen entering voting booths with some voters.