There is growing concern in Zimbabwe that presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next March will not live up to the expectations of the people. Peta Thornycroft reports that one of the major stumbling blocks is the divided opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Many Zimbabweans are deeply concerned that the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, will compete both against each other and against the ruling ZANU-PF in elections next March. Both factions will also put up candidates against President Robert Mugabe in the presidential poll which, for the first time, will be held simultaneously with the vote for members of parliament.

Eldred Masunungure, director of the Mass Policy Institute in Harare, says that as things stand now, it seems clear that the MDC will get very few seats in the legislature. "I interact with others at work and elsewhere and that decision to stand against each other is a big disappointment," he said, "and it is going to disarm the support base of both [factions of the Movement for Democratic Change], its a highly demoralizing decision."

The elections are intended to mark the end of an intensive period of talks between the two opposition factions of the MDC and the ruling ZANU-PF, which are facilitated by South Africa. The goal is free and fair elections under a new constitution that will usher in a renewal of democracy in Zimbabwe.

But civil society activists, both factions of the MDC, and independent observers say that even if a new constitution is agreed on this month, there will be insufficient time to put measures into place to ensure a free and fair election by next March. Such measures will also need to ensure a halt to state violence against the opposition, and to allow free political activity and free speech.

All elections since 2000, the first time the Movement for Democratic Change challenged the ruling ZANU-PF, have been accompanied by credible allegations of vote rigging and violence against opposition candidates and their supporters.

Political analysts in South Africa, who are close to the negotiations but do not want to be identified at this sensitive stage in the negotiations, say the talks could break down if President Mugabe insists on elections in March.