In Zimbabwe, the government has indicated that it intends to move ahead with national elections early next year. But civic groups and some political activists say there is not enough time, and they should be postponed. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.
Voter education groups in Zimbabwe say presidential and parliamentary elections due in March should be delayed, because there is not enough time to organize a proper vote.
The director of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust, David Chimhini, notes that the ruling ZANU-PF party and two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are still negotiating legal and political reforms aimed at ensuring a free and fair vote.
"The negotiations that are going on, mediated by South Africa, we still need to get that information relayed out to the electorate and we don't see sufficient time at the moment to do that," he said.
President Robert Mugabe's term expires in March, and he has said he will stand for re-election. Although the eighty-three-year-old Mugabe will face a weak and divided opposition, critics say the country's severe economic crisis poses a major threat to his rule. Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world, above 7,900 percent as well as food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.
Nevertheless, a senior government official this past week repeated that elections will be held as scheduled.
The head of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said his group would begin delineating voting districts this month.
Mugabe signed into law constitutional changes allowing Zimbabwe to hold presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time. They have previously been held separately.
Voter education groups say the combined elections will involve several paper ballots that will confuse voters if they are not properly educated beforehand.
The constitutional amendment emerged from negotiations, mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, which began earlier this year at the urging of southern African heads of state.
Various parties to the ongoing negotiations have privately said the talks are progressing well, but they note that many points are still being discussed.
These include proposed changes to laws governing political activity and the news media and measures to ensure what is termed a proper environment for a free and fair vote.
Chimhini says the current political environment is too tense to hold free and fair elections. "We still need to get assurances that the government and the ruling party will desist from any politically motivated violence," he said.
An international delegation of lawyers that visited Zimbabwe has reported that disrespect by security forces for the law and judicial system poses a serious threat to a free and fair vote.
The lawyers said that without impartial policing and human rights protections, it would be difficult for the citizens of Zimbabwe to participate freely in any democratic process.