Zimbabweans go to the polls on Saturday and Sunday to choose a new president. After two years of political violence, the main opposition candidate says there is no way these elections can be free and fair. But international observers say they are reserving their judgment until after the poll.
Widespread violence has preceded the Zimbabwean presidential election. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says at least 30 of its members have been killed since the beginning of the year, and scores have been driven from their homes by militant supporters of the ruling party, ZANU PF.
Most international observers are not yet saying whether they think the conditions for a free and fair election exist in Zimbabwe. The question, in their minds, will be whether the result of the Zimbabwean presidential election reflects the will of the people.
Mbulelo Musi, spokesman for the South African observer mission, does not discount the possible affect of violence on the poll, and he says the South Africans flatly condemn any use of violence and intimidation, no matter who is responsible.
But he believes it is still possible for Zimbabwe to hold a free and fair election.
"What we also say is that South Africa had elections in 1994, the first of a democratic kind," he said. "We had a worse situation than what Zimbabwe is experiencing. Our violence both in nature and size was just amazing. One month before our elections, an estimated 1,000 people were killed. What we see here in Zimbabwe is those isolated expressions of violence are more about stone-throwing. Deaths are very minimal."
Despite the brutal violence that preceded it, Mr. Musi says the world proclaimed South Africa's 1994 election to be free and fair. The same, he hopes, could be true for Zimbabwe.
But Dr. Francis Lovemore of the Zimbabwean human rights group Amani Trust says the parallel to South Africa's experience does not really apply here.
"One has to remember that South Africa has always been a much more violent society than Zimbabwe," he said. "Zimbabwe has never in the last 20 years relied on violence before the elections in order to control the population. One also has to remember that the death count (is) not a good way of judging the level of violence. People have been taught to use systematic, organized torture where there is psychological scarring and "minimal" damage that the person can still survive and carry on."
The ruling party, ZANU PF, denies that its supporters are carrying out the bulk of the violence. Party leaders have suggested that a "third force" is at work, trying to destabilize the country and discredit the ruling party.
Information Minister Jonathan Moyo says the Western media are exaggerating the reports of pre-election violence. He suggests there is a pattern in the way the West views Africa since the end of the Cold War.
"You suddenly get the impression - that when it comes to Africa, a reality of the post Cold War - is that all ruling parties are a threat to democracy, a threat to good governance, a threat to human rights, that you cannot run free and fair elections and have them won by ruling parties," he said. "That for an election to be free and fair in Africa, the opposition must win."
The South African observer mission says supporters of both parties are responsible for some of the pre-election bloodshed. But the South African spokesman acknowledges that most reports of violence come from MDC supporters who claim to have been targeted by ZANU PF. However, he says it does not matter which side is responsible - he says violence in any form should be condemned, no matter who is behind it.
The opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, says it is not a matter of two parties' supporters battling in the streets.
"Let me just add that what we are witnessing, there has been an attempt to equate the violence as clashes between two political parties. Far from it," he said. "The violence that we have experienced in this country is state terrorism against its own citizens. It is using state agencies, state institutions that have been built specifically to terrorize the population. So this cannot be reduced to inter-party clashes. This must be put in proper category that it is state sponsored terrorism against defenseless civilians."
Mr. Tsvangirai says the atmosphere surrounding the poll is anything but free and fair, but he also says it is too early to judge whether the result will reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people. He will not say whether he will recognize a victory by incumbent President Robert Mugabe.
It appears that the voting and ballot-counting process will determine who will respect the election results.
The outcome is anybody's guess. There is heavy support for the opposition in cities such as Harare, but it is not clear how well the MDC has penetrated the rural areas, which are home to roughly 65 percent of the population. Both candidates continue to say they will walk away the winner.