High voter turnout in Zimbabwe as counting is underway in tight two-horse race

  • Votes are being counted in the Zimbabwean election which took place Monday.
  • The vote is Zimbabwe's first since its independence from the U.K. in 1980 without former strongman leader Robert Mugabe on the ticket.
  • The presidency is tightly contested between the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and young lawyer Nelson Chamisa.
  • Regardless of the candidates' potential to revive Zimbabwe's basket case economy, painful reforms required by the International Monetary Fund and other donors will hit the public hard, an expert in the country told CNBC.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa casts his ballot at Sherwood Primary School in Kwekwe on July 30, 2018, during general elections.
Jekesai Njikizana | AFP | Getty Images
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa casts his ballot at Sherwood Primary School in Kwekwe on July 30, 2018, during general elections.

Votes are being counted in Zimbabwe following a historic election Monday that wields the potential to bring the isolated state back into the international community and resurrect its once-promising economy.

Turnout at the polls was high, averaging at 70 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Voting closed at 7 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET) as Zimbabweans selected both a new president and parliament.

Foreign observers from the U.S., the European Union and the Commonwealth were present at the election in the southern African country.

The historic vote is the first in nearly four decades without former strongman leader Robert Mugabe on the ballot paper. Instead, the two frontrunners for the presidency are Emmerson Mnangagwa, currently in office and Mugabe's former right-hand man, and Nelson Chamisa, a 40 year-old lawyer and pastor.

A July 20 survey by pollster Afrobarometer revealed that Mnangagwa was in the lead with a projected 40 percent of the vote, closely tailed by Chamisa at 37 percent. Twenty percent of voting intentions were unknown.

Mnangagwa heads up Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party, while Chamisa leads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mnangagwa or Chamisa must achieve over 50 percent of the vote in order to secure the presidency or else face a run-off on September 8.

Voters queue at a polling station in the Mbare district of Zimbabwe's capital Harare on July 30, 2018.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images
Voters queue at a polling station in the Mbare district of Zimbabwe's capital Harare on July 30, 2018.

It is hoped that new leadership in Zimbabwe will revive the fortunes of a country rich in natural resources and with a youthful population. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was exiled from the international community and saw its economy descend into hyperinflation.

Rivalry until the very end

Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe's 75 year-old incumbent, assumed power after a de facto military coup to oust Mugabe in November 2017. He has made internationalizing Zimbabwe's basket case economy a cornerstone of his leadership.

Speaking at a press conference on the eve of the vote, 94 year-old Mugabe came out in support of Chamisa.

"I hope the choice of voting tomorrow will throw, thrust away the military government and bring us back to constitutionality," Mugabe said from his mansion in the capital Harare on Sunday.

"I said I can't vote for those who have caused me to be in this situation... so there is Chamisa left," Mugabe added, according to Reuters.

"Mr Mugabe's wishes are his wishes. I am going to accept any voter with open hands. The more the merrier," Chamisa said in response to a question about Mugabe's support.

Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, casts his vote in the Mbare district of the capital Harare on July 30, 2018.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images
Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, casts his vote in the Mbare district of the capital Harare on July 30, 2018.

In a video posted on his Facebook page, Mnangagwa said that Chamisa had "forged a deal" with Mugabe. Zimbabweans would be voting for Mugabe "under the guise of Chamisa," he added.

Promise of a new dawn for investors

Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years following the country's independence from colonial power the U.K. in 1980.

"For many Zimbabwean voters, it's the freshness of Chamisa that makes him a political gamechanger," Charles Laurie, head of Africa at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in a note.

"A Chamisa victory brings the promise of a new dawn for Zimbabwe's beleaguered investment community. A win by the MDC is the most defiant and resolute sign that the country is not just 'open for business,' but committed to a deep purging of the policies and entrenched interests of the Mugabe era," Laurie added.

But, political upheaval might not be so easy.

"Locally, there is a widely held, if cynical, view that having seized power in the military coup that ousted Robert Mugabe last November, Mr Mnangagwa and his military backers will simply not allow the opposition to win," Pat Thaker, editorial director for the Middle East and Africa at Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note.

"The mostly youthful unemployed may turn on the government when they realize that promised change is largely cosmetic, and that the painful reforms insisted upon by donors and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) will mean massive lay-offs in the public sector, higher taxes, spending cuts and rampant inflation."