|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
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Can Zimbabwe polls be free and fair?
The government has promised to abide by a new regional code of conduct for ensuring elections are free and fair but the opposition says they have seen little change on the ground.
Members of the Southern African Development Community have agreed that all elections in the region should feature:
The police continue to stop the MDC from holding political rallies, while party activists remain at risk of being abducted, beaten and tortured by ruling party militias and members of the security forces, MDC secretary general Welshman Ncube told the BBC News website.
But despite threatening a boycott, analysts say the MDC looks set to take part in parliamentary elections expected in March.
Last week, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai seemed to be paving the way by saying there had been a fall in political violence.
President Robert Mugabe, accused of using fraud and violence to win two elections since 2000, has signed electoral reforms into law, including the creation of an independent electoral commission.
The commissioners, led by High Court judge George Chiweshe, were appointed after preparations for the poll, such as the publication of the electoral roll, had already begun.
The MDC says manipulation of the voters roll was one of the ways in which previous elections were rigged.
The existing body in charge of drawing up constituency boundaries has reduced the number of MPs elected in the MDC strongholds of the capital, Harare, and the second city, Bulawayo, saying the number of registered voters has fallen, while giving extra MPs to Mr Mugabe's rural strongholds in the north-east.
"This is a deliberate ploy to get everything ready and rig the election even before the commission is appointed," Mr Ncube said.
Young, urban voters, who tend to sympathise with the opposition, are also upset that they have to provide letters from their employers or landlords in order to vote, seeing this as a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise them.
Permission to speak
The MDC further says that the state radio monopoly refuses to run its adverts, in direct contravention of the SADC protocols.
A senior official in the ruling Zanu-PF party said that the MDC would be allowed to advertise on state media but did not see why they wanted to.
While the only privately-owned daily newspaper has been closed down, at least three weekly papers are still being published.
Mr Ncube says that the police often refuse the MDC permission to hold political meetings - required under tough new security laws.
And he says that even when permission is granted, the police now insist that only those named in advance are allowed to speak - so members of the public who attend the meetings cannot make their own views known.
Furthermore, and in apparent contradiction to what Mr Tsvangirai said last week, Mr Ncube said that little had changed in terms of violence.
"At the moment, the violence against MDC activists is sporadic but when the election date is fixed, we expect it to become systematic - as it always does during the election period," he said.
"Zanu-PF is holding primaries at the moment and so they are fighting each other but afterwards, they will turn on us."
The MDC wants more time before the elections are held, so that reforms can be passed and says that legally, they can be held as late as September.
In addition to the SADC code of conduct, the MDC wants the security and tough media laws to be scrapped.
"The requirements of SADC will be fulfilled and the election commissioners will be sworn in soon," he said.
While international attention is focussed on the SADC rules, human rights activist Brian Kagoro says they will not make any difference.
"Even in heaven, the reforms could not be introduced within two months. That's a joke," he said.
Last year, the MDC said it was boycotting elections because all the odds were stacked against them.
If they boycott, Zanu-PF will have enough MPs to be able to change the constitution - which could be crucial in preparing for life after Mr Mugabe.
At present, elections must be held if the president dies or resigns but some ruling party officials would like Mr Mugabe to appoint a successor, who would then have a few years in power before facing the people with all the advantages of incumbency.
But even if the MDC does take part, it may not gain the 50 seats needed to prevent Zanu-PF have the two-thirds majority in parliament required to change the constitution.
"They are dammed if they do take part and dammed if they don't," said Mr Kagoro.