PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe is expected to call a mini general election in 26 vacant constituencies within two weeks after his party's grand strategy to wheedle its partners in the Government of National Unity (GNU) into endorsing make-or-break elections this year came off the rails.
With ZANU-PF's plans for a snap poll in disarray, the veteran nationalist is now racing against time to comply with a court ultimatum handed down last month for the conduct of the by-elections.
A recent Supreme Court ruling directed President Mugabe to declare election dates for three vacant Matabeleland constituencies by the end of August, 2012. But the latter sought and was granted a month-long extension of up to October 1, 2012 to comply with the judgment.
Because of the precedence set by the Supreme Court ruling, the by-elections now extend to other vacant constituencies throughout the country, including 164 unoccupied council seats - making the by-elections a miniature version of the upcoming harmonised polls.
ZANU-PF insiders said the incumbent had sought to buy time in the hope that parties in the GNU would conclude the constitution-making process in time for the elections to be held this year to retire the dysfunctional coalition, consummated in February 2009.
While ZANU-PF was hoping for a deadlock in the stop-go constitution-making exercise to pave way for elections under the current Lancaster House Constitution, the strategy came unstuck due to the mediation process which is proceeding at a snail's pace.
The inordinate delays by the incumbent since June this year to officially open the last session of the current Parliament have only served to scuttle the legislative reforms as envisaged by Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parties.
July 24, 2012 had earlier been earmarked as the date for the opening of a new Parliament session before the event was deferred to September 6, 2012. Since then, Parliament has remained in recess and is now scheduled to reopen on October 9.
Parliament has faced criticism from all quarters for doing very little to deal with the country's legislative agenda necessary to deliver an uncontested poll.
Because of the delays in the constitution-making process, ZANU-PF insiders said President Mugabe has been left with no choice but to declare a mini-general election probably before November.
They said the revolutionary party would use the mini-general election to gauge its popularity ahead of harmonised polls next year.
Contacted for comment this week, ZANU-PF secretary for information and publicity, Rugare Gumbo, said a decision on the by-elections would be made within a fortnight.
"It's better for you to wait for the 31st of September. A decision would be made sooner rather than later. Learn to wait, be patient," said Gumbo.
Luke Tamborinyoka, spokesperson to Prime Minister (PM) Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T, said the principals in the inclusive government have discussed the issue of a mini-general election but could not state whether a deal was reached on the matter.
"The President is the litigant in that matter. All I can say is that the PM must be consulted and they must agree on that. That is what the Global Political Agreement (GPA) says," said Tamborinyoka.
Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Eric Matinenga, said President Mugabe should have sought a much longer extension in order to sufficiently deal with the by-elections issue and implement the requisite reforms contained in the GPA so that the polls produce uncontested outcomes.
Matinenga said Members of Parliament were also concerned about the delays in the opening of the last session of Parliament.
"A number of us are concerned about the opening of Parliament. We have done paperwork and have had to tear it. We are concerned because the year is coming to an end," he said.
In a commentary, legal watchdog Veritas, equally wondered as to the causes of the delays.
"Are these delays indications that we are heading for a general election? Otherwise why the lack of action. Who benefits? If President Mugabe is considering repudiating the GPA and calling a snap election under the Lancaster House Constitution, this delay would make some sense -- because it would be to ZANU-PF's advantage for an election to be conducted under the same rules as the 2008 election," said Veritas.
The by-elections to fill posts left vacant due to expulsions and deaths of legislators could be a harbinger of things to come in the next harmonised polls that would bring closure to the acrimonious GNU.
This is at a time ZANU-PF's main rival, the MDC-T, is going through rough times, amid public opinion polls showing waning support for the labour-backed party.
PM Tsvangirai's political standing has been in sixes and sevens because of his failure to manage his personal affairs, denting his leadership credentials.
There seems to be consensus among ZANU-PF strategists that this is the opportune time to gauge the party's popularity now that the MDC-T leader appe-ars vulnerable.
Government would now need to find ways to raise the required funding for the by-elections. While Treasury has previously stated that there are no funds for the by-elections, let alone the national plebiscite, President Mugabe has insisted that when it comes to polls, the money would be found.
With very little revenue being generated from taxes, the inclusive government could be banking on proceeds from the controversial Marange diamonds to bank-roll the mini-general elections and eventually the harmonised polls.
At its Troika Summit held in Luanda, Angola in June, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) gave the parties constituting the GNU 12 months within which they should hold elections.
SADC is scheduled to meet again on October 8, 2012 to ratchet pressure on ZANU-PF to comply with demands for electoral reforms.
Over the weekend, ZANU-PF national chairperson, Simon Khaya-Moyo, was adamant that it was still possible to stage national polls before the end of this year.
But in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporations on Tuesday, MDC leader Welshman Ncube, said any polls held under the current conditions would not be free and fair.
Ncube demanded a clear electoral road-map and security sector reforms before any fresh polls.
"Yes, it is worth delaying the elections because there is no point in rushing to an election whose outcome will be disputed and will create another political deadlock, which will be with us for a long time. It is better to delay the election whether it's by five months, six months and then do the elections properly under a constitution which will guarantee our liberties, our freedoms; which will curtail executive power in a manner, which protects the citizens," he said.