Zimbabwe's independent election observer network says that the political climate and conditions on the ground have given an unfair advantage to President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF for polls due March 29. Peta Thornycroft reports from Harare that although these elections are not as violent as previous polls, conditions for free and fair elections according to regional ground rules, are not there.

Along the Enterprise Road, linking Harare to northeastern Zimbabwe, three groups of ZANU-PF youth were pulling down opposition election posters.

Friday is a public holiday and the road is largely deserted except for the youths who clenched their fists in defiance as motorists passed by.

The independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network notes some violence and intimidation of opposition supporters in various parts of rural Zimbabwe.

ZESN also notes improper use of state resources in parts of the ruling ZANU-PF campaign.

Last week President Robert Mugabe used his executive powers to issue a decree allowing policemen in to the polling stations. South African mediation of inter-party talks last year produced a law specifically banning policemen, who have long been seen by the opposition as partisan, from being inside polling stations on election day.

Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change faction loyal to founding president Morgan Tsvangirai, has strongly criticized the Zimbabwe Election Commission.

It is chaired by Judge George Chiweshe who has so far refused to criticize or even act against evidence taken to him by independent critics of irrefutable breaches of guidelines drawn up by the Southern African Development Community , or SADC.

Biti says the commission is the public relations division of the government's registrar-general which always ran elections and will continue to do so.

Biti and other opposition leaders have a long list of allegations of electoral misconduct by ZANU-PF.

Welshman Ncube, secretary-general for the other MDC party faction said he had discovered that at least two people in every house in his constituency in a suburb of Bulawayo, who were listed on the voters roll were dead.

He said the voters roll was massively inflated. In previous elections, investigators for the opposition claimed that ZANU-PF had used the overstatement of voters to rig the polls during announcement of results.

Joseph Mkatazo, director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in second city Bulawayo described the shortcomings in election preparations so far as a 'litany... of uneven and unfair processes."

He said that the shortage of polling stations in opposition urban strongholds, Harare and Bulawayo, was a form of election rigging. He said however that in southern Zimbabwe the campaigns so far had been "very peaceful."

Western diplomats generally concede that there is less violence now than in the previous presidential and parliamentary elections from 2000.

For the first time Zimbabweans will vote simultaneously for a new president, parliament, senate and local government.

So far the only foreign observers in the field are from the Southern African Development Community. Few have been seen in the field, and so far those who have spoken out have said that election preparations appear to be satisfactory.