As Wednesday’s national election nears, the political temperature in Zimbabwe is steadily rising, suggesting weeks of peaceful election campaigns by the country’s two main political parties, Zanu (PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), could easily spiral into fresh conflict.
Several events at the weekend appear to have the potential to turn the political tide.
On Sunday President Robert Mugabe, campaigning in Harare, threatened MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai with arrest should he unilaterally announce election results and usurp the privilege of making the announcement from the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC).
The MDC, frustrated by the ZEC’s bungling of the special voting exercise for police and soldiers earlier in July, has expressed reservations about the competence of the ZEC to run the election, in which 6.4-million people are expected to vote.
Political observers say the air of paranoia has been increased by the arrest of a top MDC official, Morgan Komichi, who was found in possession of special vote ballot papers, and attempts by the police to ban the MDC’s final rally on Monday.
Police later backtracked from their intention to fully ban the MDC rally, but placed restrictions on its organisation. The ZEC, in response, said it had handed Mr Komichi over to the police as it had "severe reservations" and did not find "credible" his telling of how he had received the special vote ballot papers.
There are also indications that the ZEC is now in a last-minute attempt to change the electoral laws, which would see ballot papers counted at its command centre in Harare and not at the 9,600 polling stations — a move that is raising eyebrows over transparency.
An independent think-tank, the Research and Advocacy Unit, said the ZEC was being swayed by political considerations and presidential preferences rather than its duties and mandate under the electoral act. "The ZEC should thus not be surprised if any confidence that the public may have had in its impartiality and independence has been seriously shaken," the unit said.
Last week, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the ZEC’s application to extend a second chance to 26,000 members of the uniformed forces who were unable to cast their ballot during the two-day special vote. They will now be able to do so on Wednesday.
Zimbabwe’s electoral laws do not allow a second chance to vote and legal experts have warned of the possibility of "double voting", as the ZEC has sole discretion to determine which police and soldiers would vote again.
Access to the voters roll has also been an issue. ZEC chairwoman Rita Makarau said on Monday that the voters roll would be available only on hard copy from the registrar-general’s office.
"We don’t have the voters roll. Under law, all political parties must have access to it, but we are concerned that days away from the election we still have not had access to it. There is a lack of transparency on the part of the ZEC," said Alex Magaisa, a senior adviser to Mr Tsvangirai on Monday.
Education Minister David Coltart, who is also the secretary for legal affairs in the smaller faction of the MDC, said: "The provision of a voters roll goes to the very heart of a free and fair election and its nonsupply undermines the credibility of this election. It also raises very serious questions about what the registrar-general’s office is up to regarding the roll.
"This matter has been brought to the attention of the AU and Sadc observer teams and we look forward to receiving their comments regarding this very serious breach of the law and the electoral process."
Ms Makarau said: "Copies of the voters roll can now be obtained from the registrar-general’s office in hard copy, but electronic copies cannot be obtained.
"Each polling station will now have a copy of the voters roll. Due to logistical problems we can’t issue out electronic copies of the voters roll.
She said, however, that the electoral commission was ready and did not have any "nightmares" over bungling the election on Wednesday.
The ZEC had printed 35% more ballot papers than needed — 8.7-million ballots had been printed against 6.4-million voters — in case of mistakes, and "each and every ballot would be accounted for".
Registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede refused to answer questions on allegations of voters roll irregularities that include dead persons and ghost voters. "I have briefed Sadc and am yet to brief other observers, that is all I can say for now," Mr Mudede said.
Despite the logistical nightmares of preparations for the election, the thumbs-up given last week by African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has partially helped to boost the credibility of the election in Zanu (PF)’s favour.
Mr Mugabe needs a credible election to be endorsed by both regional and continental peers, which would bring a modicum of legitimacy to his rule, should he win again.
The European Union earlier in July indicated its shifting stance and said it was ready to remove all the outstanding sanctions imposed against Mr Mugabe and Zanu (PF)’s top brass pending the findings of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) election observer mission’s report.
An election special report released by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition noted that political parties had made efforts to restrain political violence, as they were desperate for a Sadc-endorsed election outcome should they win.
"Sadc has been clear about its distaste for political violence and intimidation, and this will be one of the clear templates through which this election will be judged," the report said.
Mr Mugabe is seeking a seventh consecutive term in office but faces a stiff challenge from his rival and former partner in the unity government, Mr Tsvangirai.
Despite his old age, Mr Mugabe addressed 10 rallies across the country in the lead-up to the election. They were marked by an average of two-hour-long speeches that included tirades against the West, the mediation efforts of South Africa, gay rights and the philandering ways of Mr Tsvangirai.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said Mr Mugabe’s rallies were boosted by the use of state institutions to force crowds to attend them. He said the numbers were not necessarily indicative of support for him.
"The huge rallies are misleading. They are provincial rallies where most of the districts bus their supporters in because the president is only addressing a single rally in the province. This mainly explains the huge numbers at the rallies," Mr Ruhanya said.