Former president Robert Mugabe says he would vote for opposition in Monday's election, turning on one-time allies in the government ahead of the first vote since they ousted him in a de facto coup.

Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe gestures during a news conference at his private residence nicknamed
Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe gestures during a news conference at his private residence nicknamed "Blue Roof" in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018 ( Reuters )

In a surprise address to the nation after months of silence, Zimbabwe's former leader Robert Mugabe emerged just hours before Monday's historic election declaring that "I will not vote for those who have illegally taken power" and turning his back on the ruling party he long controlled.

Slow and rambling, the 94-year-old Mugabe spoke to reporters on Sunday with bitterness about his dramatic removal in November under military pressure and amid a ruling party feud.

He was coy about endorsing anyone ahead of the election in which the former deputy that he fired, President Emmerson Mnangagawa, faces a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor, Nelson Chamisa.

'I cannot vote for ZANU-PF'

He indicated, however, that Chamisa was the only viable candidate.

"I cannot vote for those who have tormented me," Mugabe said in a reference to Mnangagwa, who took office with the military's support. 

"I cannot vote for ZANU-PF," the ruling party that has rejected him as well.

Mugabe, who has backed a new political party that is part of a coalition supporting Chamisa, said of him: "He seems to be doing well at his rallies ... I wish to meet him if he wins."

And he added: "Whoever wins, we wish him well ...And let us accept the verdict."

Polls, which are unreliable, give Mnangagwa, a former intelligence chief and defence minister only a slim lead over Chamisa, making a runoff on September 8 a possibility.

Journalist Columbus Mav-hunga tells TRT World that it's unclear if Mugabe's move will sway voters. 

Mnangagwa hits back

Later on Sunday, Mnangagwa said in a video posted on Facebook that Chamisa had "forged a deal" with Mugabe and that a vote for the opposition leader amounted to an endorsement of the old order.

"We can no longer believe that his intentions are to transform Zimbabwe and rebuild our nation," the president said.

Chamisa, meanwhile, said at a news conference that he welcomed the vote of Mugabe or any other Zimbabwean and that "you don't discriminate against voters."

Children look trough a window above election posters of Zimbabwe's ZANU PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa ahead of general elections, in Mbare township outside the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018.
Children look trough a window above election posters of Zimbabwe's ZANU PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa ahead of general elections, in Mbare township outside the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018. ( Reuters )

Mugabe still looms large

Many in Zimbabwe knew no other leader but Mugabe, who led the country for 37 years after independence from white minority rule in 1980.

What began with optimism crumbled into repression of the opposition, alleged vote-rigging, violent land seizures from white farmers and years of international sanctions.

The southern Africa nation hopes that a credible vote on Monday could get those sanctions lifted and bring badly needed investment for a collapsed economy. 

But Mugabe, one of the last "Big Men" of African politics, still looms large over Zimbabwean politics and he may yet influence the first vote without his name on the ballot paper since the country gained independence from Britain.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party leader Nelson Chamisa addresses a media conference in Harare, Zimbabwe July 29, 2018.
Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party leader Nelson Chamisa addresses a media conference in Harare, Zimbabwe July 29, 2018. ( Reuters )

President vows fair vote

Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe confidante, has tried to recast himself as a voice for reform, inviting back dozens of Western election observers and pledging a free and fair vote.

Mugabe defended Zimbabwe's election commission after Chamisa and the opposition raised concerns that the vote will be flawed, saying that "it acts quite freely."

And in a breathtaking statement, he asserted that his long stay in office had been free from meddling: "It was not the army that ensured I remained in power."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies