Zimbabwean opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai has urged that the Southern African Development Community step up the deployment of observers in the four weeks remaining to the country's March 29 presidential and general elections, saying state security forces are targeting his campaign and supporters.
In an interview, Tsvangirai acknowledged the momentum gathered by independent candidate and former finance minister Simba Makoni, who received an important boost on Saturday in Bulawayo with endorsements from ruling ZANU-PF politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa and former Zimbabwean house speaker Cyril Ndebele.
But he characterized Makoni's bid as part and parcel of the ZANU-PF strategy to bring forth a successor to President Robert Mugabe, who turned 84 last month.
Tsvangirai told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the state has mounted a crackdown on his branch of the Movement for Democratic Change as he and his candidates for parliament and local councils step up their campaigns.
He charged that the government is "escalating these incidents of violence in order to reinforce the endemic fear in the population...there is a lot of impunity, and yet there is a perverse attitude that this election must be free and fair."
Tsvangirai said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission can only invite observers who are approved by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, "and naturally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has limited (the observers) to those that they perceive to be sympathetic (which) therefore undermines the credibility of the so-called observers."
He said his opposition formation "would have hoped...that SADC would have sent its observers" by now given the regional organization's stake in democratic elections in Zimbabwe following its own efforts since last year to broker a solution there.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has not yet accredited observers, whether local, regional or international, though the elections are less than four weeks off.
President Mugabe, seeking re-election, has said foreign observers seen as "hostile" to Zimbabwe will not be invited or allowed to monitor the elections.
Zimbabwean civic organizations and a range of international officials and analysts say democratic elections cannot be achieved without independent observers.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has backed Mr. Mugabe, saying that the world should leave Zimbabwe alone to make its own decisions.
Amendments made late last year to the country's electoral laws have eliminated the role of election monitors in Zimbabwe’s elections. Experts say this means that a whole group of people who could note irregularities at polling stations and bring them to the attention of polling officers will be missing in the upcoming elections.
The amendments came about as a spinoff of the so-called SADC process crisis talks sponsored by the regional organization and mediated by South Africa. But those talks launched in March 2007 ultimately broke down in January when Mr. Mugabe refused to compromise on the election date and called the ballots for March 29 despite the opposition's demand that the talks be concluded first and results implemented.
Mr. Mugabe also rejected another key opposition demand which was the introduction of a new constitution before the next round of national elections.
SADC is recruiting and training observers from member states, but critics note that independent regional observers including the SADC Parliamentary Forum and the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa have not received invitations from Harare.
For insight, reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe spoke with Irene Petras, a human rights lawyer and vice chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, and Electoral Institute Executive Director Dennis Kadima, who said Harare must admit observers if it wants the outcome to be seen as legitimate.