South African President Thabo Mbeki says he has doubts about the chances of a free and fair election in neighboring Zimbabwe next year. The South African leader's comments to reporters Thursday come amid a widening crackdown on Zimbabwe's political opposition and the independent news media.

In the past, President Thabo Mbeki has been reluctant to openly criticize South Africa's neighbor to the north. But he told reporters in Pretoria, recent political violence could threaten Zimbabwe's ability to hold free and fair presidential elections as scheduled next year.

"Well, I mean, clearly, in a situation in which people get disenfranchised, in which people get beaten up so that they don't take an honest decision or act in accord with their political convictions - obviously, there can't be free elections if we have circumstances like that," he said.

He spoke against a background of rising political unrest north of the Zambezi River.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has labeled members of the political opposition as "terrorists," blaming them for the murder of a ruling-party militant in the southwestern city of Bulawayo. Scores of opposition activists have been arrested in recent weeks, and scores more have been beaten by ruling party supporters.

The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has denied any connection to the killing or to terrorism.

Mr. Mugabe has also been repeatedly criticized by international press freedom organizations over threats to independent and foreign journalists working in Zimbabwe. The government has accused several reporters of aiding the alleged terrorists in the opposition.

Meanwhile, a proposed election law would prohibit Zimbabweans who live abroad from voting in next year's presidential poll. Thousands of Zimbabweans, many of them opposition supporters, live in South Africa, either for economic reasons or to escape the political violence.

Mr. Mbeki acknowledges the situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated over the past two years. He said free and fair elections are key to keeping the country from descending further into chaos. "If you had elections in Zimbabwe which were not seen by the people as legitimate, and you had a government formed which people did not see as legitimate, you would probably end up with a situation worse than it is now," he said.

Both the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, and the Commonwealth group of nations have set up committees to try to resolve Zimbabwe's political unrest and the continuing land crisis.

Mr. Mbeki acknowledged that, so far, those efforts have failed. But he said South Africa will continue to press for a solution through those same groups.

He also said South Africa has not considered imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe or its political leaders. The European Union is threatening to do just that, if Zimbabwe's human rights record does not improve.