Conditions for free elections "don't exist," says lawyers group

( dpa )- Zimbabwe cannot have a free and fair election in the current environment where President Robert Mugabe - himself a candidate - maintains almost total control over the electoral system, one of the country's leading civil rights groups warned.

A report by Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum released at the weekend concluded that "conditions do not exist for the holding of free and fair elections on Saturday this week."

It cited a "partisan" and weak electoral commission that runs the elections, widespread military involvement in the process and mass vote buying.

The report comes amid widespread fears of vote rigging - which independent observers say have given 84-year-old Mugabe victories in the last three elections since 2000 - in a complicated poll held on o only one day, compared with three in previous elections. Observers also warn that the state of ill-preparedness of the state-appointed Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) will lead to confusion.

On Sunday, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai warned supporters of his Movement for Democratic Change that Mugabe would "use every trick in the book to subvert the will of the people."

In a move setting the scene for potential confrontation with the regime, Tsvangirai urged supporters not to leave the polling station areas after they had cast their ballots, but to stay and "defend your vote."

Poll watchers have reported a dramatic surge throughout the country in the last few weeks in support for opposition parties, particularly for Tsvangirai's MDC, while Mugabe's backing appears to falter, amid signs of divisions in his ruling ZANU( PF) party.

Although the Forum report says that the ruling party's "institutions of intimidation ... are being used countrywide," observers say that the level of violent intimidation that has characterised previous elections is considerably lower, and that opposition parties are able to campaign relatively freely.

However, the Forum says that the ZEC "continues to operate in a politically partisan manner." "The key personnel who will run the elections on the ground are pro-ruling party sympathisers , such as ex-army officers and intelligence officers," adding, one provincial electoral officer was a serving officer.

Judge George Chiweshe , the chairman, appointed by Mugabe , is a former brigadier-general "and a staunch supporter of ZANU( PF)," it said. Recently amended electoral laws put the ZEC in charge of maintaining the voters' roll, but the law has been ignored and it remains under the control of registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede , whom the Forum described as "a fervent supporter" of Mugabe .

The Forum said voter registration for this election had been "selective and fairly chaotic." When it questioned him about severe inaccuracies, Chiweshe "brushed the allegations aside."

ZEC had also "conspicuously failed" to take any action to prevent the state run media from behaving like "ruling party propaganda organs."

The report also cited the heads of the army, the police and the prison services as saying they would not "salute" Tsvangirai because he was "a puppet" and ordered their officers to vote for Mugabe . Their statements were "a gross abuse of office and are tantamount to treason."

Reports said "hundreds" of soldiers had been deployed in rural areas "to coerce the rural population to vote for Mugabe and his party." Soldiers had also been instructed to take leave to help ZANU( PF) campaign, it said.

The forum said Mugabe and ZANU( PF) had engaged in "massive vote buying" by using state resources. It cited massive pay rises for civil servants and the distribution of millions of US dollars of imported agricultural equipment, effectively free of charge, mostly to ruling party supporters.

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