By Nelson Banya
MUTARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Even before the polls opened in Manicaland, a key swing province in eastern Zimbabwe, political banter and blankets were slowly warming hundreds of voters queuing patiently outside a polling station in the bitter pre-dawn cold.
An old man mumbled a joke about whether the cock will still crow after the election, a reference to 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe who is facing what he has called the "fight of our lives" with long-time political nemesis Morgan Tsvangirai.
"It is not daylight if the cock hasn't said so," a middle-aged woman shot back, nailing her colors firmly to the mast of Mugabe, whose ZANU-PF party uses a cockerel as its symbol.
"But if it's time to go, it's time," a voice chimed in from the darkness, reflecting the view of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that after 33 years in power Mugabe should head into retirement.
Across the southern African nation, voters turned out in large numbers in presidential and parliamentary elections on Wednesday.
The banter and ripples of mirth in the crowd in Mutare were in marked contrast to the belligerence of past elections, especially 2008, when 200 Tsvangirai supporters were killed in unrest that broke out after Mugabe lost a first round vote.
Such repartee is rare in Zimbabwe, where people routinely look over their shoulders before speaking on political matters as sensitive as the fate of Mugabe, Africa's oldest head of state and a man vilified in the West as a despot.
Soon after the church clock struck 7 a.m., a kilometer-long (0.6 mile) line started moving towards the polling booth, much to the relief of Gogo Mawoyo, who has voted in every election since independence from Britain in 1980.
It was drizzling when she left home, but like many she braved the cold to make her mark in an election that has been dogged by organizational problems but has been so far devoid of serious disturbances or violence.
"I cannot feel my toes but I want to get this done early and spend the rest of my day resting," she told Reuters. "I hope it stays as peaceful as it has been so far."
"END OUR SUFFERING"
Some voters had already spent time waiting in another queue - for water from a communal township tap, a reminder of the many privations suffered by Zimbabweans after a decade-long economic meltdown that included 500 billion percent inflation.
"Water is a big problem here. We have to get up very early to get water from the taps outside because there is no water in our houses," said 30-year-old mother-of-two Tafadzwa Bande.
"I will vote for a council and government that will deliver water and end our suffering."
As the sun started to break through dark clouds, voters emerged in trickles from the booths, holding up an ink-stained finger to prove they had made their mark.
For some, it was still a step too far to express open support for Tsvangirai, now prime minister in a unity government brokered by neighboring South Africa after the 2008 violence.
"Who I have voted for is not really a secret, but my name is. You can call us virgin voters for change," said one 20-year-old man, glancing nervously at his friend. "It is time for a fresh start. The past is past."
(Editing by Ed Cropley, Pascal Fletcher and Paul Taylor)