Five years of violence, political intimidation, voting irregularities and restrictive legislation have skewed Zimbabwe's electoral playing field in favor of President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued yesterday, days before a key parliamentary vote.
The New York-based group is the latest of several local and international rights organizations to sound the alarm about the March 31 polls, seen as a test of Mugabe's legitimacy after nearly 25 years at the helm of the troubled southern African country.
Researcher Tiseke Kasambala urged governments of the Southern African Development Community -- among the few invited to observe Zimbabwe's elections -- not to judge whether the poll is free and fair based on what they have seen over the past week alone.
``If SADC members fail to take into account abuses in the long run-up to the polls, SADC's ability to foster democratic change in the region will be compromised,'' Kasambala said in a statement.
South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki drew widespread criticism when he said recently -- weeks before any ballots were cast -- that he saw no reason why Zimbabwe's election wouldn't be free and fair.
Human Rights Watch's 35-page report documents cases of political intimidation against opposition parties, their supporters and other citizens by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and its allies.
A headmaster in Chipinge South Manicaland told researchers that ruling party youths came to his school on Aug. 2 and beat him in front of teachers and school children. Nine days later, they paraded him at a ZANU-PF rally and forced him to apologize for being a supporter of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He reported the matter to police, but no arrests have been made and he has been unable to return to his school.
Police have repeatedly used the Public Order and Security Act, which requires prior notification of any political gatherings, to ban opposition meetings and arrest those critical of the government, it said.
The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, introduced after Mugabe narrowly won re-election in 2002, has been used to shut down a number of independent newspapers and arrest journalists deemed critical of the government.
Both the 2002 election and 2000 legislative vote were marred by widespread violence, intimidation and irregularities, according to independent observers.
Human Rights Watch noted that Zimbabwe's government has taken steps to reduce the level of violence since the 2002 poll, which took place amid the often bloody seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans. The government also has enacted two new electoral laws, which it says brings Zimbabwe in line with SADC electoral principles.
``The government has denied the opposition, civil society activists and ordinary citizens the right to freely express their opinions,'' Kasambala said.
As a result, the report concludes that the elections are ``highly unlikely'' to reflect the free expression of voters.