President Robert Mugabe said he would reform election laws before parliamentary elections in March, but critics say new laws due in parliament this week do not improve the outlook for free and fair elections. Sections of the new election laws are seen as harsher than existing ones.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a non-governmental organization, has comprehensively criticized new laws that the ruling Zanu PF party says are substantial reforms of existing legislation.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network was established in 1998 to be a neutral expert in election laws. It commissioned a study of the two new laws that Zanu PF says are in line with electoral principles agreed to by Zimbabwe at a regional summit in August.

The Network report finds little comfort in the two new laws, one to establish an electoral commission to run elections and the other to provide a legal framework for elections. The electoral commissioners will be appointed by President Robert Mugabe, who is also president of Zanu PF, which will run candidates in the elections in March.

In addition the commission is empowered to recruit members of the military to assist with the elections.

Commissioners can be dismissed by the minister of justice, who is a leading member of Zanu PF and may be a candidate in the next election.

This new legal framework, which will replace the existing Electoral Act, outlaws voter education from neutral election experts like The Zimbabwe Election Support Network because it is foreign funded.

It disallows votes by mail, except for members of the military and diplomats away from home. Several-million Zimbabweans who have moved to neighboring South Africa during the past four years of economic decline would be disenfranchised.

Earlier this year, President Mugabe pledged he would cut voting days from two to one, but this has not emerged in the new laws.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network's analysis of both new laws welcomes certain minor changes to a few administrative procedures. But it concludes that there is no fundamental reform, and that the new laws fall far short of regional standards.

The Network is likely to be banned before elections, as legislation to outlaw all non-governmental organizations involved in human rights is also expected to be pushed through parliament this week.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says it will not take part in the March general election unless Zimbabwe's electoral laws fall in line with standards adopted by Mr. Mugabe and the region.