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Britain More Muted Over Concerns Regarding Zimbabwe Elections

Zimbabweans are preparing to go to the polls Saturday in national elections in which long-time President Robert Mugabe is asking for another term in office. Opposition and human rights groups express doubts that the polling will be free and fair. But, unlike in previous elections, the British government has taken a much more muted view and less critical stance. Tendai Maphosa asks analysts why that might be the case.

Controversy over Saturday's elections has been raging for some time. Zimbabwe's opposition has accused President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party of planning to steal the vote. The human rights group, Amnesty International, told VOA that Zimbabwe's whole electoral process raises serious questions.

Amnesty spokesman Simeon Mawanza, who was recently in Zimbabwe, explains.

"Zimbabwe still falls way below international standards in terms of protecting very important rights to do with an election process which are freedom of expression, association and assembly," said Mawanza.

But, British officials have been more muted in expressing their concerns. Earlier this week Foreign Secretary David Miliband sounded a more cautious note. Asked what the British government would do if the elections in Zimbabwe are not free and fair, he told reporters that he wanted to avoid being seen as trying to affect the very tense situation in Zimbabwe. Miliband added he would wait until after the elections to talk about what Britain might do.

Political analyst Knox Chitiyo agrees with Miliband. Chitiyo is from Zimbabwe and heads the Africa program at Britain's Royal Institute Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI). He told VOA that previously, negative comments from British officials were actually used by President Mugabe to rally support.

"I think the Brits are trying to get out of this whole British conspiracy hole which Mugabe has used very effectively," said Chitiyo. "The other thing is past elections there has been a lot of raising of opposition hopes. I think the British have been disappointed so many times so they are being a lot more cautious this time around just in case things [don't] pan out and it's business as usual."

Other experts agree. Thomas Cargill, Africa program manager at the Chatham House research center in London, says that President Mugabe was able to use outside criticism in the past, especially from Britain, as evidence that the former colonial power is still trying to meddle in Zimbabwe's affairs.

"We have seen much less comment and criticism of the process for this election than previous ones and I think the reason is that the outside world and particularly the UK is realizing that every time it makes what's been called a kind of megaphone intervention it really helps Mr. Mugabe and his portrayal of himself as standing up to these neo-imperialistic aggressors," said Cargill.

Zimbabwe holds joint presidential, parliamentary, senate and local council elections against the backdrop of the highest inflation rate in the world, high unemployment, and chronic shortages of food, fuel and electricity.

Critics of Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, blame him for the country's crisis. Mr. Mugabe, however, blames the problems on sanctions imposed by former colonial power, Britain.

Mr. Mugabe's challengers in the presidential election are Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change and former finance minister Simba Makoni, running as an independent.