Two days of voting end in Mozambique

Friday, December 3, 2004

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Two days of elections that began with a flood of voters ended in a trickle Thursday, leaving officials baffled about the sudden apathy in a hard-fought race for a successor to the man who has led Mozambique for 18 years.

Balloting that began with long lines Wednesday dwindled with the advent of the stifling afternoon heat. Heavy rain also affected voting in some areas.

Polling stations were mostly deserted Thursday, the final day of voting for President Joaquim Chissano's successor and a new parliament. Election workers who had expected a crush simply rested in the shade.

At midday, national television said turnout was less than half what had been expected. By day's end, one polling station in the far north with 36,000 registered voters reported only about 6,000 ballots cast.

At another in the south, only 27 of about 1,000 voters had turned up.

Vote counting began when the polls closed at 6 p.m.

Seventeen parties ran for parliament and five fielded presidential candidates. The presidential race narrowed to a close contest between ruling Frelimo candidate Armando Guebuza and Afonso Dhlakama of the main opposition Renamo party.

Mozambique remains one of the world's poorest countries and its people are sounding a drumbeat for change. That sentiment spelled trouble for Chissano's Frelimo party, which has governed since independence from Portugal in 1975, and seemed to benefit Dhlakama. But that was before his deputy, Raul Domingo, formed his own party.

Domingo's popular candidacy has many predicting the race will end in a runoff.

Dhlakama, the former rebel commander in a devastating civil war, says the presidency was stolen from him in the two previous elections, though independent observers called those polls largely free and fair.

Dhlakama has hinted that he won't accept a third defeat he thinks unfair.

No stranger to use of force, Dhlakama has a private militia of 500 as his "presidential guard." His Renamo party waged a 16-year war against the Frelimo government after independence from Portugal in 1975. That conflict killed a million people, created 5 million refugees, destroyed Mozambique, and -- along with Frelimo's failed experiment with Marxist rule -- hopelessly impoverished its people.

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