Harare — Political violence has been a traditional staple of Zimbabwean elections, but with the ruling ZANU-PF party now split, next month's ballot could see a whole new scale of trouble.
"Violence breeds destruction of property, life and infrastructure, and we do not want lives lost. We will stamp it out and nip it in the bud," police commissioner general Augustine Chihuri warned this week after meeting senior police officers.
In a veiled threat to the opposition, he added: "We are tired of people who complain when they lose but endorse the results when they win. In any election some win, others lose, and this should be accepted."
With Kenya's experience of post-election violence fresh in people's minds, senior judges Rita Makarau and Lawrence Kamocha added their voices to appeals for peace during the voting on 29 March. Kamocha urged the police to be impartial, and politicians to demonstrate determination to fight violence during and after the polls.
Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has long complained about the unfairness of the political contest, from restrictions on campaigning to access to the media. Since the 2000 election when the MDC first emerged, election observers have routinely condemned the organisation of the ballot and the environment of intimidation.
A new element, likely to make next month's election even edgier, is the decision by Zimbabwe's former finance minister, Simba Makoni, to challenge President Robert Mugabe, 83, as an independent candidate. This has heightened tensions in ZANU-PF, where a post-Mugabe succession debate has been simmering.
"The most vicious violence could be the fights among former ZANU-PF allies, who have been split into two factions: those supporting Makoni and those supporting Mugabe," political commentator Paddington Japajapa told IRIN.
"Even more worrying is the fact that it is in ZANU-PF where you find former guerrillas of the war of liberation, and there is the possibility that former comrades in arms could turn their guns against each other."
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Makoni, 57, told IRIN that he was opposed to any form of violence. "No presidential candidate is worth dying for; certainly, no presidential candidate is worth killing for. I appeal to all Zimbabweans, especially the youth, not to be used by anybody to engage in violent behaviour."
The election is being held against the backdrop of dire economic hardship. Japajapa commented that the country's deep recession, reinforced by the cold shoulder from Western donors, has served to heighten the drama around the coming poll. The International Monetary Fund has estimated Zimbabwe's inflation rate at 100,000 percent and still rising.
Unemployment is now over 80 percent, maternal mortality rates, and infant and under-five deaths are all above threshold levels that should trigger international concern. Although nutrition levels are not the lowest in the region, only in Zimbabwe are the trends in "stunting" and "underweight" deteriorating.
In announcing his candidature, Makoni stated: "I share the agony and the anguish of all citizens over the extreme hardships that we have all endured for nearly 10 years now. I also share the widely held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership, and that change at that level is a prerequisite for change at other levels of national endeavour."
Makoni was one of the youngest ministers in Mugabe's first post-independence government in 1980. He was appointed executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1984. After the shock of ZANU-PF's near defeat in 2000 he was part of a group of technocrats drafted into government, but fell out with Mugabe over economic policy and resigned in 2002.
Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, executive director of the pro-democracy Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), told IRIN that a rushed timetable for the local council, legislative and presidential elections - the first time they have been run simultaneously - was undermining their credibility, despite a SADC-brokered dialogue between MDC and ZANU-PF.
"Two days before nomination courts sit throughout the country, none of the parties has completed the final list of candidates ... We are going into the elections before the SADC-brokered talks have seen the signing of an agreement," said Chipfunde-Vava.
"We don't think there is enough time to implement some of the agreed changes to security and media laws that were agreed to under the [SADC]-mediated talks."
Chipfunde-Vava said the onus was now on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), appointed by Mugabe, to deliver a credible vote. However, with only six weeks left before the ballot, it was still recruiting staff and battling to find office space in some parts of the country.
Lovemore Madhuku, chair of the rights lobby group the National Constitutional Assembly, told IRIN that piecemeal amendments to the constitution would not deliver the required reforms for a free and fair poll. "We are saying that Zimbabweans are participating in these elections although they know that the elections are not legitimate."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]