The United States and other democratic nations are closely following events in Zimbabwe, as that country gears up for parliamentary elections scheduled for March 31. The last election in Zimbabwe was marred by widespread violence and allegations of fraud. Observers say they fear this election will be no different.

There are clear warning signs that Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections scheduled for March 31 will fall far short of free and fair. Over the past five years President Robert Mugabe has been accused of widespread intimidation of the democratic opposition, oppression of the country's civil society and a campaign against independent media.

President Mugabe says the elections will be free and fair and he blames foreign powers, particularly Britain, for Zimbabwe's economic problems and isolation from the world.

Democracy advocates disagree. According to Wellington Chibebe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, those who go to the polls on March 31 will face threats and acts of violence.

"Over the next few weeks we want to state very clearly that as much as the politicians are saying the elections will be 'violent-free,' the reality on the ground is that ordinary men, ordinary women and children are going to be subject to untold violence," he said. "The fact that our government is refusing or hesitant to invite political observers from the international community is a sign that they are not open to democratic scrutiny."

U.S. officials will be closely watching events in Zimbabwe. The United States has applied targeted sanctions and has cut off all non-humanitarian aid to the country. The European Union has also expressed concern about the regime's undemocratic tendencies and has applied so-called 'smart sanctions' that target Zimbabwe's leaders.

Thomas Woods, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of southern African affairs, says the United States will continue to pressure President Mugabe on reported human rights abuses. However, he says the most effective approach is for regional African leaders to make public their concerns.

"The key to the future of democracy in Zimbabwe is in the region," he said. "Regional governments and public opinion have more potential to influence events in Zimbabwe than anything done in far away countries, such as the United States."

Mr. Woods notes that when the United States or Britain condemn the government in Harare, this plays into President Mugabe's hands and allows him to pose as a champion of the anti-colonial movement.

"But regional pressure is another thing altogether," he said. "The government in Harare cares about its standing in the region. ZANU-PF officials care about their reputation in neighboring countries."

To date, regional leaders such as South African President Thabo Mbeki have been reluctant to publicly criticize the Mugabe government, instead opting for quiet diplomacy.

George Ayittey, professor of economics at American University in Washington and president of the Free Africa Foundation, says this approach isn't working. He wants to see the regional leaders take a tougher stance, much like the leaders in West Africa condemned the recent events in Togo as a coup d'etat. Togo's new president was installed by the military after the death of his father and is refusing to step down.

"West Africa has shown the way," he said. "ECOWAS has taken a very strong stance on Togo. President Obasanjo of Nigeria has also taken a very tough stance against Togo. South Africa and the regional organization in southern Africa, SADC, also need to take a strong stance on Zimbabwe. Africa cannot make progress if their leaders apply one standard on Togo and a different standard in Zimbabwe."

The 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), drafted guidelines for free and fair elections at a summit in Mauritius six months ago. Annabel Hughes with the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust notes that President Mugabe signed the agreement. In spite of Harare's violations of the agreement, she says SADC has refused to condemn the Mugabe government.

"There's no political space," he said. "The media are all getting chased out of town because they don't want them there to report what's going on and what has SADC said? What has SADC said to date? They've said nothing."

Although southern African governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, democracy advocates say one heartening development in recent months is the way religious groups and labor unions in South Africa have spoken out against the abuses of the Mugabe regime.

State Department official Thomas Woods says that forging links between civil society in Zimbabwe and civil society in the region holds the most potential for democratic transformation in the long run.