HARARE (Reuters) - Police officers and soldiers who will be on duty during Zimbabwe's July 31 election began voting on Sunday, the eve of a court hearing to stop the process because Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party says police numbers were inflated.
Zimbabwe will hold presidential and parliamentary elections and police chiefs have been campaigning for Tsvangvirai's arch-rival, President Robert Mugabe, telling rank-and-file to vote for the veteran leader and his ZANU-PF party.
The MDC says junior officers were threatened by superiors to rally behind Mugabe, a charge dismissed by the police. Mugabe, 89, has been in power for 33 years and long criticized by political rivals and the West for perceived authoritarianism.
While so far largely peaceful, the election process has been criticized as disorganized, under-funded and plagued by irregularities.
The state electoral commission says 69,000 police officers, 2,000 prison officers, 164 soldiers and thousands of election officials were taking part in a two-day special vote starting on Sunday.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has queried the police figures and the High Court will on Monday hear a request by the party to stop the voting.
The MDC says only 41,133 members of the police are eligible to vote, according to a Ministry of Finance salary schedule.
In 2008, police, soldiers and prison officials were forced to vote in front of their superiors in barracks and camps, but are now casting ballots in public polling centers monitored by all political parties and foreign observers.
Police officers could be seen at voting centers in the capital Harare queuing patiently to cast their votes.
Tsvangirai, making his third attempt to end Mugabe's long grip on power, says nothing has been set in place to ensure a vote fairer than previous elections.
Tsvangirai, who tried in vain to have the next election delayed, said ZANU-PF was using bureaucratic obstacles and tricks such as keeping dead people on the electoral roll to try perpetuate itself in power.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)