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Zimbabwe Falls Short on Election Guidelines

With only two days to go before Zimbabwe's parliamentary election, the government says it has complied with the election guidelines spelled out by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But analysts say the electoral playing field is still heavily tilted in favor of the ruling party.

Last August, President Robert Mugabe joined the other leaders of the Southern African Development Community, a regional grouping, in putting his signature to what is known as The SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

Among other requirements, the document calls for freedom of association, political tolerance, equal access to state media by contesting political parties and independence of the judiciary and the impartiality of electoral institutions.

The Zimbabwean government has made some changes to the electoral laws in the country including the establishment of what the government says is an independent electoral commission and an electoral court.

Analysts, however, see the government moves as an attempt to avoid the controversies of the 2000 general election and 2002 presidential vote. The results of both elections were challenged by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Some local and international observer groups also declared the polls were not free and fair.

University of Zimbabwe analyst Brian Raftopoulos says the latest changes implemented by the government still fall far short of compliance with the SADC guidelines. Mr. Raftopoulos says contrary to government claims, the electoral commission is not running the election and the voters roll is still a mess, with the names of some voters who have been dead for years still appearing.

"I don't think it [the implementation of the new rules] will substantially change the form of the election, because the electoral process is still being run by the Registrar General against whom opposition parties have been sending complaints for the last two decades, in particular the central aspect of that process which is the voters roll which is still not available to any opposition party in electronic form. So I am sure this election will be no different,” he said.

Mr. Raftopoulos also said Zimbabweans are still, through some tough laws, being denied freedom of association and expression.

Despite complaints by the opposition, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has said the conditions in Zimbabwe are now conducive to a free and fair poll.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer says she cannot understand how the South African leader could conclude things have changed enough given the reality in Zimbabwe.

"Clearly the failure to have one electoral body running the elections, a body that would have been impartially chosen that immediately puts a flaw in the elections,” she said. “There is no way that an electoral commission that is largely put in place by persons who have been appointed by the president can be said to be impartial."

Despite its misgivings about the election, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is confident it will get a majority of the 120 seats in parliament on March 31.