HARARE: Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe, who was ousted by the military in November, made a surprise intervention on Sunday (Jul 29) on the eve of key elections, calling for voters to throw his old party out of office.
In his first live appearance since being forced to resign by his generals, Mugabe, 94, spoke slowly but appeared in good health sitting in a pagoda in the grounds of "Blue Roof", his sprawling mansion in Harare.
"I hope the choice or the voting which will be done tomorrow... will thrust away the military form of government and bring us back to constitutionality," he said.
In the country's first election since Mugabe was ousted after 37 years in power, Zimbabwe goes to the polls on Monday amid mounting allegations of voter fraud and predictions of a disputed result.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe's former ally in the ruling ZANU-PF party, faces opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the landmark vote for the southern African nation.
Zimbabwe's generals shocked the world last year when they seized control and ushered Mnangagwa to power after Mugabe allegedly tried to position his wife Grace, 53, to be his successor.
"I cannot vote for those who tormented me," Mugabe said, hinting he could vote for MDC. "I can't vote for ZANU-PF ... what is left? I think it is just Chamisa."
"It was a thorough coup d'etat," Mugabe said of his dethroning, adding it was "utter nonsense" that he wanted his wife as his successor.
Grace Mugabe posed for photographs beside her husband after his two-hour press conference.
Mnangagwa, 75, who promises a fresh start for the country despite being from the ZANU-PF elite, is the front-runner with the advantage of covert military support, a loyal state media and a ruling party that controls government resources.
But Chamisa, 40, who has performed strongly on the campaign trail, hopes to tap into a young population that could vote for change.
The vote is Zimbabwe's first without Mugabe, who led ZANU-PF to power in the country's first election after independence from British colonial rule in 1980.
As Zimbabwe's hectic politics reached fever pitch, Mnangagwa on Sunday claimed that Mugabe's remarks proved that Chamisa was in an alliance with Mugabe.
"The choice is clear - you either vote for Mugabe under the guise of Chamisa or you vote for a new Zimbabwe under my leadership and the ZANU-PF," Mnangagwa said in a video message.
But Chamisa also spoke out saying: "I have nothing to do with what president Mugabe would want to say as a voter. He is a citizen."
Elections during Mugabe's authoritarian rule were often marred by fraud and violence, and this year's campaign has also been dominated by accusations that the vote would be rigged.
The MDC has repeatedly raised allegations of a flawed electoral roll, ballot paper malpractice, voter intimidation and bias in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
Campaigning has been relatively unrestricted and peaceful compared with previous elections, and some analysts point to pressure for the vote to be judged credible to draw a line under the international isolation of the Mugabe era.
Polling in Zimbabwe is uncertain, but a recent Afrobarometer survey of 2,400 people put Mnangagwa on 40 per cent and Chamisa on 37 per cent, with 20 per cent undecided.
Mnangagwa, who is accused of involvement in election violence and fraud under Mugabe, has vowed to hold a fair vote and invited in international observers - including the previously-banned European Union team.
"After years of stasis the events of November 2017 gave Zimbabwe the chance to dream again," Mnangagwa said on Sunday in an address on state radio.
"As we have always said the elections will be free, non-violent and credible."
Chamisa has vowed not to boycott the vote, saying his party would still win despite accusing Mnangagwa and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) of trying to fix the result.
Both Mnangagwa and Chamisa, the two leading contenders in a field of 23 presidential candidates, held large final rallies in Harare on Saturday.
With 5.6 million registered voters, the results of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections are expected by Aug 4.
A presidential run-off vote is scheduled for Sep 8 if no candidate wins at least 50 per cent in the first round.