All three presidential candidates in the Zimbabwe election have launched their campaigns for the election scheduled for the end of this month. But, as Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA, there are already indications that these elections - despite some improvements in the political climate - will not be seen as free and fair by Western countries.

Zimbabwe is more peaceful now than before the last presidential elections in 2002. Then, the founding president of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his campaign team were under constant physical attack from Mr. Mugabe's supporters, as well as from the police and army.

The government then rejected allegations of violence and intimidation, blaming opposition supporters of causing violence or defying the law by holding illegal gatherings.

This time there are two challengers to President Robert Mugabe, who is seeking another five-year-term that could see him serve 33 years as Zimbabwe's head of state. In addition to Tsvangirai, Mr. Mugabe is facing a challenge from Simba Makoni, a senior member of his own party and a former finance minister.

The changed political climate is partially the result of the South African-mediated dialogue between ZANU-PF and the MDC, which produced some improvements to election laws. However, some analysts say the government is only adhering to some of these improvements.

Political analyst Brian Raftopoulos has observed all Zimbabwe's elections since the arrival of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in late 1999. He says that a climate for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe does not currently exist.

"Despite the fact that there might be some lessening of tensions in certain areas, on the whole I think the conditions are still very, very difficult," he said. "I certainly don't think these are conditions for free and fair elections."

Both factions of the MDC, which split in 2005, say a few opposition candidates and supporters have been arrested since this campaign began and some political meetings have been banned by police. But, the police have allowed most political rallies to take place and have kept a lower profile than usual.

Zimbabwe citizens are now able to work as journalists without seeking accreditation. However, Brian Hungwe, a Zimbabwe journalist, who applied for accreditation, has been informed by the Media and Information Commission, currently functioning without a legal mandate, that he is now banned from working as a journalist.

In addition, the independent Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe says both print and electronic media in Zimbabwe are almost entirely biased in favor of ZANU-PF.

The Zimbabwe Election Commission has failed to meet a deadline to officially publish names and addresses of election officials. Before parliament was dissolved, ahead of the elections, approval of 210 new voting districts was hurriedly approved by the ruling party majority, without debate.

There is little voter education, ahead of the election, in which, for the first time, four national elections take place, simultaneously.

The difficult political climate is further exacerbated by acrimony in opposition ranks. Talks aimed at reuniting the MDC failed last month. Analyst Raftopoulos says the split has caused tension within the broad opposition - both between the two factions of the party and between civil rights groups.

"Some of the key civic leaders have become involved in the split that took place in the MDC in 2005 and subsequent acrimonious activity that resulted from that," he said. "And, so they've in a sense developed a possession of that split, they have taken ownership of that split, and also engaged in some of the more bitter polemics which took place around that.

Raftopoulos says some in the MDC and some civic groups have taken a leaf out of the ruling party book, when it comes to dealing with disagreements among themselves.

"Even opposition and civic politics has grown up in a political culture dominated by ZANU-PF authoritarian political style," he explained. "And, that has often transferred itself into the practices of both the opposition and the civics, in the manner of their politics, in the manner in which they deal with differences and dissent with in their own ranks."

There is also concern in Zimbabwe that a win by either of the presidential challengers could lead to state repression and conflict. Raftopoulos says the tensions would be greater if Morgan Tsvangirai won than if Simba Makoni was the victor. He says, if Tsvangirai wins, it will represent an extraordinary victory, as Mr. Mugabe and his colleagues have waged a relentless and often violent campaign against him and his colleagues for the last eight years.

"I think Mugabe has a huge perception, first of all, that nobody else can rule Zimbabwe besides himself, but certainly that Morgan Tsvangirai will never rule Zimbabwe," he added. "So, I think the acrimony, the possible fight back, the responses from state and maybe even from the army, would certainly be stronger against a Tsvangirai victory."

If President Mugabe does win the presidential elections, Raftopoulos believes the political and economic crisis will continue to deteriorate.

"It will be an election that will certainly not be widely recognized, apart from the usual culprits in the region and continent who have recognized the most repressive elections, the most fraudulent elections," he said. "But, certainly, if we are talking about the West, there will be no recognition of that election."

Raftopoulos says, if Simba Makoni wins the presidential election, his victory would legitimize the ruling ZANU-PF, as a reformed party. But he says, it would also open up political space.