International pressure is mounting on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to ensure that the March elections there are free and fair. While some of that pressure is coming from the U.S. State Department, democracy and human rights groups are adding their voices to the issue as well.
The U.S. State Department has long expressed concern about the political situation in Zimbabwe. Recently, the Bush administration warned of the possibility of targeted sanctions against the Mugabe government unless it takes steps to ensure that the upcoming national elections are free and fair.
"The policies that the Mugabe government have taken have led the country to economic and political rack and ruin, and it is time for them to think about the future of their country, the future of their people and focus on democracy," said Philip Reeker, spokesman for the State Department. "And that would include establishing a system to have free and fair elections, as they're scheduled in March."
Under an act of Congress recently signed into law by President Bush, President Mugabe and members of his political inner circle could face travel and economic sanctions if the March elections are not seen as open and credible.
This concern over the political situation in Zimbabwe extends to a number of private democracy and human rights groups as well.
In its recently released annual report, Human Rights Watch called on the Zimbabwe government to permit international observers to monitor the March elections.
"Everybody still hopes that sufficient pressure can be put on Mugabe that he will allow elections to take place under some reasonable conditions," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Clearly, all the trends are bad right now with the latest legislation restricting journalists and foreign observers being only the last step."
Another group closely following the situation in Zimbabwe is the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, named for its founder, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
The Carter Center has monitored 30 elections in 20 countries since 1989. The executive director of the center's Democracy Program, Charles Costello, says his organization is following developments in Zimbabwe and would be eager to monitor the elections if allowed in by the Mugabe government. "You are not going to have a functioning democracy over time unless you have a solid free elections base because that is how people can hold government's accountable," he said. "They can say, 'you've tried it, we like it and we'll give you another term in office', or 'we didn't like it, we like this other guy's program, we are voting him in.'"
Mr. Costello says the Carter Center standards for declaring an election free and fair involve much more than merely monitoring polling stations on election day.
"You would have to have what we would call the preconditions for a free and fair election," he said. "You have to have an election law or political parties law which gives actors the chance to organize politically and get registered. In other words, it has to be open to competition."
Charles Costello also says it would be in the interests of Zimbabwe's government to allow in international observers to monitor the election.
"In Zimbabwe's case, why would they want to have somebody come in if you are the government or President Mugabe? Because, they would say, nobody seems to believe us anymore," he said. "But if we attempt to run a free and fair election and we say that we will do that and we win it, we want the results to be accepted internationally."
Human rights groups both inside and outside of Zimbabwe have blamed supporters of President Mugabe for most of the political violence in the country over the past few years. But government ministers have repeatedly charged that it is supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who have instigated political violence.