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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March, 2005, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Q&A: Zimbabwe election
Zimbabweans go to the polls on 31 March to elect a new parliament, amid claims by the opposition and human rights groups that the elections will not be free and fair.

Why are these elections important?

They are the first test of electoral reforms introduced last year as part of regional guidelines, so if all goes smoothly, it would be a good sign for future elections.

Conversely, if the polls are not seen as free and fair, those guidelines would no longer be worth very much.

Woman walks past election posters in Harare
Many Zimbabweans are trying to survive, instead of bothering with politics
Although these are not presidential elections, the outcome could have a big effect on Zimbabwe's leadership, whichever party wins.

If President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF wins a two-thirds majority in parliament, it would be able to change the constitution.

This would enable it to alter the rules about what would happen if the president resigned or died in office.

At present, new elections would be called but some people in Zanu-PF would like the ruling party to name a successor to inherit power for a couple of years, before contesting elections with the advantage of incumbency.

Some analysts also say that if they felt secure enough in power, some in Zanu-PF would like to take the first steps towards moving Mr Mugabe out of the picture.

They would change the constitution to introduce the post of a powerful prime minister and let Mr Mugabe step back to take on a more ceremonial role.

If, on the other hand, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) gained a majority, it would be able to block bills proposed by the government and might even try to impeach Mr Mugabe.

Is the opposition likely to do well?

The MDC faces an uphill battle for a number of reasons.

Opposition poster
The government says the opposition is free to campaign
President Mugabe is able to nominate 30 members of the 150-seat parliament, giving his Zanu-PF party a huge advantage.

In the last parliamentary election, the MDC won almost as many elected seats as Zanu-PF but ended up powerless because the ruling party had those extra seats.

The MDC's inability to block Mr Mugabe's policies, despite having more than 50 MPs, is one reason why many of its supporters have become apathetic about politics.

In the capital, Harare, some young people who used to campaign for the MDC are now just trying to survive.

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The MDC also complains that its activists face routine harassment and even torture at the hands of security agents and Zanu-PF supporters.

They say they cannot compete against the repressive state machinery and this is why they have not been able to change government policy.

Another party, Zanu Ndonga, will be hoping to retain the seat it has held for many years in Chipinge, eastern Zimbabwe.

So will the election be free and fair?

Mr Mugabe has introduced some electoral reforms, such as the election commission and court to run the polls, in order to comply with new regional election guidelines.

And it is widely agreed that these elections have been less violent than those in 2000 and 2002.

Zanu-PF supporters
Food aid is reserved for Zanu-PF supporters, Human Rights Watch says
But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say MDC activists and candidates are still harassed, while the memory of past violence means Zanu-PF threats can be effective, even if they are not being carried out.

They also say that in rural areas, suspected MDC supporters are denied food aid.

This is denied by Zanu-PF, which also says it does not use violence. It accuses the MDC of crying foul because it is losing support.

What will be the most important areas?

In previous elections, the MDC won easily in towns and cities and in the south-western Ndebele-speaking areas. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.

The turn-out will also be keenly watched to see if Zimbabweans think elections can make a difference to their lives.

The two most interesting constituencies are Tsholotsho in the west and Chimanimani in the east.

The controversial former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo is standing as an independent in Tsholotsho, held by the MDC, after being sacked earlier this year.

In Chimanimani, the MDC MP Roy Bennett is in jail after attacking a minister in parliament.

The new Electoral Court at first ruled that he could stand and postponed the election there by a month to let his team campaign.

However, it reversed its decision following an appeal by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Mr Mugabe had called the ruling "madness" and urged his supporters to ignore it.

Mr Bennett's wife, Heather, will be the MDC candidate.

Are there any election observers?

Yes, but they are mostly from countries and institutions which did not criticise the last two polls, such as Zimbabwe's neighbours, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Caribbean Community, Iran and Russia.

The European Union has not been invited and nor has the Commonwealth, which has expelled Zimbabwe.

The most important group is from the Southern African Development Community, Sadc, which introduced the election guidelines.

But observers say they are unlikely to criticise Mr Mugabe's government for political reasons.

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has already said he believes the poll will be free and fair.

What are the main campaign issues?

Mr Mugabe accuses the MDC of being a stooge of western countries and says it is an "Anti-Blair election". He promises to continue his controversial programme of seizing land from white farmers for redistribution to poor blacks.

The MDC accuses Mr Mugabe of wrecking Zimbabwe's economy and promises to restore economic growth.

It denies having any links to the west and promises to carry out land reform but says it will do it in a more systematic way than Zanu-PF.

What is life like in Zimbabwe?

Mostly pretty bad.

In towns and cities, many thousands of jobs have been lost as the economy has just about collapsed.

This is partly the knock-on effects of the seizure of almost all white-owned farms. All the companies which supplied them with equipment or which transformed agricultural produce have been badly hit.

In rural areas, where most people are subsistence farmers, life is also tough.

Years of drought have come on top of the collapse of the formal agricultural sector.

Some people have been given land but there has not been much help for the very poorest - who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries.

So even if they have some land, they cannot afford seeds, fertiliser and other things they need to produce a good crop for sale.


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