An advance team of fifty election observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) arrived in Zimbabwe ahead of national elections on March 29. Peta Thornycroft reports that no observers from Western countries have been invited to the elections because the Zimbabwe government says it is only inviting friendly states.
The SADC observers, and those from forty six invited groups, will have to monitor 210 voting districts or about two thousand polling stations. For the first time, voters there will have to cast ballots in four simultaneous polls: for the president, for parliament, for the senate; and, for local government.
Most of Zimbabwe's voters live in the rural areas, and access to some of the districts is difficult as many roads have badly deteriorated during the economic crisis over the last eight years.
All the voting districts are new, as the number of elected legislators has been increased by 90 to 210.
There are several electoral reforms for these elections. They were agreed to during South African mediated negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. But a new constitution, agreed to early in the talks, has not been implemented because President Robert Mugabe refused to do so.
Opposition leaders say that even the reforms that were legislated are not being properly implemented. The MDC has filed an urgent application Monday with the new Electoral Court to demand an electronic version of the voters' roll, which it says it has so far been denied.
In elections since 2000, the MDC has said polls were rigged via the voters' roll of more than five million voters. The party has complained the document still includes as registered voters, people who are deceased or who emigrated many years ago.
The MDC is also demanding that the voters roll be under the control of the Zimbabwe Election Commission, and not with the office of the Registrar General where it has always been held before.
Only with access to the voters roll can people find out where they can vote as each voter is assigned to one of the 2000 polling stations. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network says it is concerned there is not enough voter education to let people know where they are supposed to vote.
The MDC faction loyal to founding president Morgan Tsvangirai is also gathering evidence for a legal challenge to the state controlled media.
There are no independent daily newspapers, radio or television in Zimbabwe.
The MDC says the coverage of the election campaigns so far has been biased in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF. That view is shared by the only media analysts in Zimbabwe, the independent Media Monitoring Project which produces weekly statistical reports. Those reports have consistently demonstrated a bias in favor of ZANU-PF in the state media.
At the last presidential election in 2002, a delegation of parliamentarians from the SADC member states said the poll was neither free nor fair. The Commonwealth, of which Zimbabwe was then a member, agreed with that verdict. Zimbabwe expelled the head of the European Union's election observer team shortly before election day.
South African observers declared the elections legitimate and credible while an African Union delegation found them to be fully free and fair.
Zimbabwe consistently rejects allegations that elections have been rigged, arguing those assessments were biased and untrue. Now the government has decided it will only invite what it describes as friendly countries. The only European country invited is Russia and the only delegation that could include European representatives is that from the Community of Lusophone Countries, a grouping of Portuguese speaking nations.