A perusal of Biti's US$3,8 billion national budget shows he had the forthcoming elections in mind. The budget is laced with sweeteners for the generality of the population, particularly civil servants and depositors, Njabulo Ncube notes.
INDEED the game is on. Finance Minister Tendai Biti set the ball-rolling for the country's make-or-break harmonised elections scheduled for next year by setting aside US$50 million for the plebiscite amid heightened political tensions as the country's political parties fight for the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans ahead of the polls.
While the actual dates for the harmonised elections to bring to an end the acrimonious coalition government formed between ZANU-PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2009 are still to be announced, Biti's budget proved that resources would indeed be found to bankroll the elections.
Previously, the Finance Minister had been consistent that the country does not have money to fund the elections in the wake of pressure from ZANU-PF for him to do so.
Citizens are already gearing themselves for an incident-packed campaign period as the country trudges along in readiness for the fresh polls in the next seven months.
As usual, the major gladiators would be President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Prime Minister (PM) Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC-T.
A perusal of Biti's US$3,8 billion national budget shows he had the forthcoming elections in mind. The budget is laced with sweeteners for the generality of the population, particularly civil servants and depositors.
He proposed a marginal salary increment for civil servants while raising the tax-free bonus threshold to US$1000 ahead of the festive seasons, measures critics view as populist stunts intended to appease a weary electorate.
Biti scrapped bank charges for small depositors, the bulk of which are civil servants, cross-border traders, vendors and the unemployed, cannon fodder for the political parties eyeing the next polls.
Critics of Biti and the MDC-T viewed his budget as a populist election statement meant to curry favour with the electorate ahead of the polls, more so coming a few months after the production of two independent surveys which showed that the MDC-T's popularity had been eclipsed by President Mugabe's ZANU-PF.
Biti also announced financial packages for the smallholder and small-to-medium enterprises, which critics again say are election sweeteners.
While Biti's poll budget appeared ai-med at voters, critics say it might be a question of too little too late for his MDC-T, pointing out that ZANU-PF had already set the tone for the elections by rolling out its own several populist projects outside the national budget.
They say although all the three partners in the coalition government have been on the ground campaigning since the day they inked the Global Poli-tical Agree-ment (GPA), government projects would be the hardest hit as politicians take to the road to campaign for votes.
A number of them have been on the campaign time for a couple of years, analysts point out.
For instance, Obert Mpofu, the ZANU-PF secretary for economic affairs and Minister of Mines and Mining Development, has spent the past two years doling out freebies in and around the Matabeleland region as ZANU-PF moved to reverse the gains of the MDC-T and MDC in the region.
Mpofu is seen tipping the scales in favour of ZANU-PF in Matabeleland due to his benevolence. ZANU-PF's critics accuse Mpofu of funding his projects using proceeds from diamonds, charges the Minister of Mines denies.
In 2008 polls, ZANU-PF all but surrendered large swathes of Matabeleland to PM Tsvangirai's party, including Bulawayo and other major towns such as Hwange and Victoria Falls.
But the MDC-T has not been sitting on its laurels as it has moved to discredit Mpofu's political machinations in the region as electioneering gets into top gear in Matabeleland.
The party says it is aware that due to 'shady deals' at the diamond mines in Marange and the subsequent refusal to remit proceeds to Treasury in an open and transparent manner, ZANU-PF has gone on a "naive" campaign trail in Matabeleland characterised by massive "binges and gluttony."
"It is ZANU-PF through Obert Mpofu who are peddling lies yet the party of excellence (MDC-T) is firm. In Matabeleland North, we will claim 13 districts including Obert Mpofu's constituency which is up for grabs. Obert will learn that money cannot buy a person's heart. The people will not vote on the basis of wealth but they will do so on the basis of character and moral standing in the community and a good party policy document," said Sengezo Tshabangu, the MDC-T chairperson for Matabeleland North.
Tshabangu said his party will not be moved by Mpofu's strategy, adding that people of Matabeleland would not be bought "through a meal and beer" at the expense of critical developmental projects which the MDC-T has been spearheading ever since it went into the inclusive government.
On his part, President Mugabe, who is facing another stiff challenge from his nemesis, PM Tsvangirai, rolled out his election campaign before Biti's budget.
In early November, President Mugabe launched the US$20 million special Presidential Agricultural Inputs Support scheme aimed at drumming up support for ZANU-PF among the 300 000 black farmers he has empowered since he started his land reforms in 2000.
Under the scheme, new farmers are being given free maize seed and other farming implements. The ZANU-PF leader also initiated a number of share-ownership schemes in and around the country under the guise of empowering communities living within mining areas such as the Ngezi, Hwange and Marange. But there are disgruntlements over how some of these projects have been structured.
Not to be outdone, PM Tsvangirai has initiated his agricultural projects designed to win over small-scale farmers in arid rural areas. He also launched his party's job creation policy known as JUICE.
PM Tsvangirai surprised his detractors mid this month when he held a field day at his Buhera homestead in Humanikwa Village, Manicaland where people from various backgrounds were shown a thriving drip irrigation farming project that he has embarked on.
The project was started early this year.
Buhera district is located in an area that has low rainfall patterns. PM Tsvangirai said he was spearheading the use of drip irrigation in order to mitigate food shortages caused by the low rainfall.
After the field day, he proceeded to address a rally at Murambinda growth point attended by thousands of party supporters where he extolled them to "finish off" President Mugabe and ZANU-PF in the forthcoming polls. In the 2008 bloody elections, PM Tsvangirai's MDC won 20 of the 26 contested seats in Manicaland province.
To try and consolidate its 2008 victory, the PM's party has since the last elections been holding provincial memorial rallies in areas such as Manicaland and Masvingo in memory of about 200 MDC-T members the party claims were "callously" murdered by ZANU-PF militia allegedly assisted by State security agents.
The PM has used some of the rallies to parade some of the victims of the 2008 violence.
But ZANU-PF has vowed to retain the seats it lost to the MDC-T in the next polls, setting the stage for yet another intriguing election.
Lawton Hikwa, a political analyst based in Bulawayo, said certainly the nation was in an election mood even before Biti unveiled the 2013 budget.
He said the flurry of activity by politicians from both sides of the political divide was the norm every time elections loomed in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the world.
"We are quite likely to see a lot of campaign activity in the next five or more months," said Hikwa.
"One can tell that the parties are in an election mode already by their language of campaign and comparisons against each other," he said.
Hikwa felt that the upcoming election would be a unique and important one.
"Naturally, we expect the new constitution to be in place, the elections to be free of intimidation and violence; and, therefore free and fair. Similarly, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) will expect the country to adhere to and uphold its electoral laws and conduct the elections within SADC and AU frameworks of free and democratic elections. From within and outside our borders, everyone yearns for a democratic contest with a respectable and accepted outcome," he said.
Trevor Maisiri, a senior political analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the period leading to elections will typically be characterised by what he called the contraction of the broader reform agenda.
Political parties are no longer too focussed on fulfilling the entirety of the reforms outlined in the GPA but are only focussed on those issues pertinent to what they believe would give them leverage in the elections.
"The parties are also not too focussed on their roles and responsibilities in government anymore. Political tension is on the rise and political talk now dominates. We are likely to see increased polarisation and tension in the political environment including a lot of tussling around election roadmap issues," he said.
Maisiri said SADC remained key and important in shaping credible elections in Zimbabwe whose outcome would be universally acceptable.
Despite SADC's slow progress, the regional bloc remains central in determining the kind of election Zimbabwe would stage. The AU is expected to take a cue from SADC.
The minimum conditions outlined in SADC's guidelines for democratic elections include free media; free political space to all parties; independence of the electoral commission; and non interference in electoral processes by politicians and external forces.