Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is hoping that Thursday's parliamentary election will lend his government more legitimacy, despite its growing record of intolerance and repression. There has been a recent drop in the political violence that has plagued the country for five years, but opposition leaders and human rights groups say the "playing field" is still skewed dramatically toward the ruling party.
For the third time in the last five years, Zimbabweans have waited in long lines to vote. The question in many people's minds is whether their ballots will be counted fairly, and whether the results of the poll will truly reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people.
Even opposition leaders acknowledge that the climate of violence and intimidation that has prevailed in Zimbabwe over the last five years has eased dramatically in the weeks running up to the poll. The main opposition party has been able to hold large rallies in towns and cities that were considered no-go areas during the presidential election three years ago.
It is believed that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe ordered his ruling party's militia to stand down, in an effort to ensure that this poll, unlike the previous two, will be judged free and fair by those in the international community who are allowed into Zimbabwe to make that evaluation.
However, the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both issued reports recently saying that the so-called "playing field" in Zimbabwe is still skewed dramatically in favor of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
London-based researcher Tiseke Kasambala, who wrote the Human Rights Watch report, says a few weeks of relative calm cannot undo the damage done by five years of repression, and she documented continuing problems as recently as last month.
"We documented a high level of political intolerance and intimidation by ruling party supporters and their political allies against opposition supporters and members, as well as ordinary Zimbabweans perceived to be supporters of the opposition," she said. "So, in that sense, we would say that the opening up of democratic space has been more cosmetic than anything else."
The last two elections were condemned as fundamentally flawed by many international observer missions. The Commonwealth group of nations suspended Zimbabwe from its ranks after the 2002 presidential election, and Zimbabwe later left the Commonwealth completely, when the group refused to lift the suspension.
That presidential election and the parliamentary elections of 2000 were also condemned by the SADC Parliamentary Forum, a group of lawmakers from Zimbabwe's neighbors in the Southern African Development Community. The lawmakers have not been invited back, but another SADC observer group has, representing regional governments rather than parliaments.
It will be up to them to decide whether Zimbabwe has met SADC's new requirements for democratic and credible elections, according to Denis Kadima of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.
"The SADC principles, they call them SADC election principles and guidelines, provide for a number of things, including freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly. It provides that the playing field must be level," he said. "So, those who will be going there to observe elections will ascertain whether there is equal opportunity given to all parties and candidates, and also, if those freedoms I have referred to, if everyone can enjoy them."
Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, says Zimbabwe has already failed to comply with many of the SADC requirements, especially those relating to voter registration and the voters roll.
Ms. Kasambala of Human Rights Watch expressed similar concerns, as well as doubts about the commission overseeing the poll.
"What we can say is, looking at the Southern African Development Community principles and guidelines - which call for an independent, impartial and inclusive electoral commission to oversee the electoral process - while we were in Zimbabwe, we found that the Zimbabwe electoral commission was neither impartial, independent nor inclusive," she said. "The members of the commission were presidential appointees."
Ms. Kasambala also echoed concerns aired by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, whom the government has condemned as a mad liar because of his allegations that food is being used as a political weapon in rural Matebeleland, an opposition stronghold. The archbishop says government supporters are threatening to withhold food from areas that do not vote for ZANU-PF.
Ms. Kasambala and Human Rights Watch says those threats are real.
"I think one of the key issues for us are the threats of denying people food aid after these elections, that have been made by ZANU-PF officials and chiefs, especially in the rural areas, as well as the threats of retribution and political violence after this election. That is why we are calling on the SADC observer team to try and remain in the country for as long as possible, to monitor and report on any such events, if they take place," said Ms. Kasambala.
The Zimbabwean government refused to invite observer missions from the European Union, or the United States, both of whom have been critical of previous Zimbabwean polls. Even so, U.S. and European officials have already condemned this election as flawed, saying the pre-election environment has made it impossible to hold a free and fair poll.
Zimbabwean officials have consistently rejected all allegations of unfairness or bias. In an interview with South African state radio, Zimbabwe's ambassador to South Africa, Simon Khaya Moyo, justified the exclusion of U.S. and European observers.
"Well, obviously, because they have already declared the election is not free and fair," he said. "So, why invite somebody who has already made a verdict? In any case, we have never been invited also to their elections. But the point is that this is what they have said themselves, that the elections cannot ever be free and fair. So, you invite the person to come and do what? When they have already pronounced the outcome."
Regardless of who the voters choose at the polls, it is highly unlikely that ZANU-PF will actually lose control of Parliament. Only 120 seats in the legislature are elected. President Mugabe appoints people to the remaining 30 seats, giving his party a decided advantage. As he cast his ballot Thursday, the president told reporters he expects to get a two-thirds majority, which will allow him to change the constitution.