Zimbabwe Stumbles Towards the Ballot Box By Adrian Kriesch

Zimbabwe goes to the polls on July 31. But can free and fair elections be arranged in such a short space of time? Prime Minister Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe's neighbors have their doubts.

Thousands of Zimbabweans clad in red T-shirts cheered Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai as he officially launched his election campaign in the town of Marondera on Sunday (06.07.2013). Yet Tsvangirai is reluctant to enter the fray.

After years in opposition, his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) joined a fractious coalition with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in 2008. Its five year term has come to an end, but Tsvangirai wanted elections to be held at a later date so that electoral rolls could be checked and important reforms enacted – without which a free and fair election wouldn't be possible in the first place.

"Under the present conditions, which are neither free nor fair, I don't believe that the upcoming elections will be lawful – irrespective who wins them," Tsvangirai told his supporters.

A new constitution came into force in Zimbabwe in March after protracted negotiations between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. The charter deprives the president of some of his powers.

For example, the president can now only dissolve parliament with its consent and no president is permitted to serve more than two terms. This restriction does not, however, apply to terms served before the implementation of the new constitution, so President Mugabe is free to run for office once again. He has been at the helm of Zimbabwe for the last 33 years.

Unfinished reforms

There are two key areas of dispute that have yet to be resolved and they are intertwined – the reform of the media and the security forces.

The MDC wants military and party officials banned from the media and greater emphasis to be placed on press freedom. A DW correspondent in Harare reports that journalists are still being subject to intimidation by the authorities. "But since the coalition came to power in 2008, the intimidation has slackened off somewhat," he said.

Jürgen Langen works for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank in Zimbabwe.

He said the security forces have very close links with ZANU-PF and are essentially a "state within a state." The army possesses its own mining rights, operates mines and sells weapons the world over. With its resources it could almost be described as self-sufficient, yet its funds really ought to be part of the state budget.

No money for the elections in state coffers

In spite of its diamond wealth, the Zimbabwean state is chronically short of funds. The finance minister has already said that there isn't enough money available to mount the election. Jürgen Langen said nepotism and cronyism are the reason why the big mining concerns aren't paying taxes. He suspects that one of Zimbabwe's allies – such as China – could help it make up the shortfall.

Aid from South Africa is unlikely to be forthcoming, even though assistance from that country was instrumental in ensuring that the last election could go ahead.

But relations with South Africa and the southern African regional bloc SADC are now tense after Mugabe brushed aside their request for a postponement of the poll. Mugabe accused SADC of being biased in favor of the MDC and threatened to pull Zimbabwe out of the regional bloc – to loud applause at a ZANU-PF election rally!

Large numbers of centenarians eligible to vote

Judy Smith-Höhn from the South African Institute of International Affairs is critical of SADC because it has so far failed to threaten to Zimbabwe with substantive sanctions. She also believes the July 31 election to be premature.

"According to a recent study, as many as two million young voters are not yet on the electoral register," adding that there are also "more than 100,000 voters who are supposedly more than 100 years old." The Zimbabwean government has less than four weeks to sort out these problems.