Next month Zimbabwe holds presidential, parliamentary and local elections - the first time all three polls have been held together. But as Tendai Maphosa reports from London, analysts and exiles do not believe the poll will bring about the change the country needs for it to get out of the political and economic crisis it has been mired in for years.

With the elections only a few weeks away there is already widespread pessimism that the elections will not bring about the change Zimbabwe so desperately needs. Among those expressing concern is the Britain's Africa Minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, who said the odds are against a free and fair election in Zimbabwe.

Alex Vines, who heads the Africa Program at the London-based think-tank, Chatham House, echoed Malloch-Brown's sentiments. Vines is well acquainted with Zimbabwe having worked there during the 1980s. He told VOA that while the voting itself may be free this time, Zimbabweans remain so affected by the violence and intimidation that marred past elections, the result of this election is unlikely to reflect the electorate's real choices.

"I think it [is going to] be difficult given what's been happening in recent years in Zimbabwe for a free and fair election; and the days themselves maybe more free but [given] the context of the elections [it] is very difficult to see how it will be an open, democratic and fear-free election," said Vines.

Since 2000, the contest has been between Mr. Mugabe's party and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC came close to winning the 2000 elections but has since been severely weakened by violence, arrests on trumped-up charges as well as internal bickering.

But earlier this month the 84-year-old Zimbabwean leader's former minister of finance, Simba Makoni, announced he will challenge the president as an independent. Until he announced his run for the presidency, Makoni was a senior member of the ruling Zanu-PF led by the president.

Vines notes Makoni's candidacy is an interesting development. But Dewa Mavhinga, a Zimbabwean working with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum in London, describes the excitement around Makoni's candidacy as overblown.

"The significance or otherwise of Makoni's candidature would have come in his ability to split Zanu-PF," said Mavhinga. "But if he fails to draw heavyweights from Zanu-PF then he is not significant at all. As he is an independent without a political party or a grassroots base, he is unlikely to unseat President Mugabe in the forthcoming poll."

The crisis in Zimbabwe has seen an estimated three million people - a quarter of the total population - leave the country for political and economic reasons. The most popular destinations have been neighboring South Africa, Botswana and the United Kingdom. Launching his election manifesto earlier this month, Makoni called on those abroad to come home and vote. Mavhinga said it is unlikely Zimbabweans outside southern Africa will heed the call.

"People, particularly in the diaspora, which would be made up of fairly middle class and informed people are very aware of the shortcomings of the electoral process and therefore would not put much faith in the process as to travel all the way from the UK, New Zealand the U.S. to go and vote," added Mavhinga.

There seems to be a consensus that the opposition has to participate in elections even though the electoral process is heavily tilted in favor of Mr. Mugabe's party. Chatham House's Alex Vines says it is important for the opposition to participate otherwise it becomes irrelevant.

"They are not unique in this regard, this is a conundrum that opposition parties more regularly have found themselves in Africa but the history of parties that completely boycott is actually more grim than those that actually try and contest and have some space for negotiation and relevance," he said.

Alex Magaisa is a Zimbabwean lecturer at the University of Kent. He told VOA that the upcoming elections are crucial for the country's recovery and he hopes that the prevailing hardships may push the rural electorate, normally intimidated into voting for Mr. Mugabe, into rejecting him this time. But, he points out that the splintered opposition might hand Mr. Mugabe victory.

"If Mugabe wins, which is quite likely, there will be no progress, Zimbabwe will continue to be a pariah state and that is the biggest obstacle," said Magaisa. "The question that we are faced with is not whether we change the system of government or democracy in the country, I think it's whether we change the face of the national leadership."

Magaisa added a change in leadership would unlock a lot of possibilities for Zimbabwe in terms of economic recovery and the democratic process. Most analysts note that if past elections are anything to go by, Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, will be celebrating another victory. And exiled Zimbabweans, who have fled his regime, will still be waiting for the change that means they can go home.