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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March, 2005, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Zimbabwe's veneer of fairness
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Johannesburg

Three years after a questionable presidential poll, Zimbabwe has all the hallmarks of a country ready to hold free and fair elections.

Zimbabwean police
The run-up to these polls has not been as brutal as the one before
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is on the rural campaign trail, while his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) broadcasts on state TV.

It has been a peaceful non-violent build-up to the elections, with little obvious intimidation - so what is the problem?

"Systematic human rights violations," says Amnesty International.

"Substantial infringements of the right to express political opinions," says Human Rights Watch.

"It cannot be free and fair," shout the civil-society coalitions, think-tanks and NGOs who have been watching Zimbabwe for months.

New-found freedom

A small and select group of election monitors will observe and report, but critics of President Robert Mugabe say the climate of openness is a thin veneer over a deeply flawed electoral process.

Zanu-PF supporter
The ruling Zanu-PF party has dismissed charges of unfairness
The voters' roll lies at the heart of the protest.

Without proper scrutiny there are claims that hundreds of thousands of dead people will take part in the election - and cynics add that the dead do not vote for the opposition.

The police and army will man many of the 8,000-odd polling stations.

There are complaints that the electoral commission is run by ruling party loyalists.

There have been claims of subtle intimidation in the rural areas and even reports of food aid being used as a political weapon.

But the MDC, an opposition party worn down by strict laws and reported human rights abuses, appears to have been invigorated by its new-found freedom to campaign.

Constitution plans

Youths from the ruling Zanu-PF party may have patrolled the perimeter of the MDC's rural rallies but the violence of 2002 that saw clinics and hospitals filled with injured opposition supporters has not been played out this time around.

Election posters in Zimbabwe
Foreign observers will keep a close eye on the elections
It does not mean the intimidation is not there but it has given the opposition momentum to fight the election.

People across the country are speaking freely, and there is every chance the MDC will put up a fight and win a good share of the 120 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

The president picks the other 30, so securing a majority is unlikely.

Zanu-PF wants two-thirds of the seats to win the power to change the constitution - something with deep ramifications for presidential succession.

It could give President Mugabe the chance to choose his successor and organise a retirement plan.

Economy in crisis

But it is the response in Africa that will be the most interesting, for its impact will be felt beyond Zimbabwe's borders.

Last August, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) set a list of guidelines for free and fair elections.

On the list were guarantees of freedom and independence for the judiciary and media, political tolerance and impartial electoral institutions.

Many observers argue these criteria clearly have not been met in Zimbabwe, and that approval of the election as "free and fair" from the SADC observer mission would question its commitment to democracy.

The people of Zimbabwe simply want the economic ills that have befallen them over recent years to subside.

The economy is still in crisis. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to other countries in search of work and money. Unemployment and inflation are riding high.

Many want what the opposition offer - "a new beginning" - but whether they can deliver that is in the hands of the voters and the observers with the power to award the electoral commission a pass or fail.

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