Harare — CRITICS have reacted with outrage to President Robert Mugabe's last-minute tweaking of electoral laws just days ahead of elections.
The changes allow police officers access into polling booths, from where they had been banned under laws agreed with the opposition.
The police will help the physically handicapped to cast their votes, under regulations made by President Mugabe through the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) (Amendment of Electoral Act) (No. 2) Regulations, 2008 on Monday.
Government opponents and critics see the changes as a negation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) guidelines and principles for conducting democratic elections in the region.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), an independent election monitoring body, says the last minute change to electoral laws severely undermines the credibility of the polls.
ZESN chairperson Noel Kututwa said the changes were made unilaterally without consultation and agreement of other parties.
Kututwa said: "The recent announcement that the electoral regulations have been unilaterally changed to require police officers to be inside polling stations could undermine public confidence that their vote is their secret.
"Further, voters requiring assistance to cast their ballots should be able to designate a person of their choice to help them mark their ballot. This announcement effectively reverses important electoral reforms that were only gazetted in January 2008 ".
Observers say the decision to have police officers based 100 metres away from polling stations would have been an important measure to enhance public confidence in the secrecy of their vote.
Deploying police officers inside polling stations is in contravention of Article 2.1.1 of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.
Regarding assisted voting, due to illiteracy, physical handicaps or old age, the principle of "equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for" as enshrined in Article 2.1.6 of the guidelines, requires that a voter should be free to select a person of their own choice to help them mark their ballot.
Allowing voters this choice "is not burdensome to the electoral process and will enhance accountability and public confidence in the process", the guidelines say.
The opposition has called for an immediate withdrawal of these measures, and charges that ZANU-PF has already been abusing the law by telling rural voters the police would assist them put the "X" against President Robert Mugabe's and other ruling party candidates' names.
Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the Morgan Tsvangirai faction of the MDC, said his party would today lodge an urgent court application against the change of rules.
"We have instructed our lawyers to challenge these particular changes, which permit the police to rig the elections on behalf of ZANU-PF," said Chamisa. But the Arthur Mutambara faction of the MDC said it saw nothing wrong with the changes.
"In fact it did not make sense for the police to be 100 metres away," said spokesman Gabriel Chaibva. "We also don't see anything wrong with police assisting the physically handicapped to cast their votes. It makes sense that the police be inside the polling station, not outside, to maintain law and order."