Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's attempt to unilaterally declare July 31 as the date for the country's next national election has been blocked at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Maputo, Mozambique. In a letter delivered to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Thursday, Mugabe said that he was compelled by a Constitutional Court judgment to conduct the election by the end of July.
Using emergency powers mentioned in the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act, Mugabe's proclamation called for "harmonised elections" on July 31 and declared June 28 as the final date for the nomination of aspiring candidates.
But Tsvangirai - Mugabe's chief political rival - rejected the president's announcement as a "unilateral and flagrant breach of the constitution" and threatened to boycott the election. On June 14, ahead of the regional meet, five of Zimbabwe's opposition parties, including Tsvangrai's MDC-T, wrote to SADC, asking it to stop Mugabe from making an "unconstitutional and pre-mature" proclamation.
After a disputed presidential election run-off in June 2008, mediation by the SADC brokered a political settlement creating a power-sharing government between Mugabe and his two main opposition rivals - Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara. Bickering delayed the coalition from coming into office until February 2009, and political differences continued to plague the government with both Mugabe and Tsvangirai declaring it a dysfunctional "marriage of convenience".
According to the terms of the deal, the president decides an election date in consultation with the prime minister and cannot act on his own. However, he can reject the option of seeking an extension. But Mugabe cannot do so, as he had previously sought a court extension for the 2013 general elections.
Earlier this year, Mugabe applied for extension against a High Court ruling that ordered him to declare a date by March 31, 2013, to conduct disputed by-elections, a constitutional referendum and the general elections.
But by March 28, Zimbabwe had only held a vote on the constitutional referendum. Realising he was running out of time, Mugabe applied for an extension and was granted reprieve to call for "harmonised elections" by June 29.
Now, Mugabe's insistence on upholding a Constitutional Court ruling is seen as a tactic to frustrate his opponents and hold a rushed election to ensure the victory of his Zanu-PF party.
|Mugabe sets date for Zimbabwe elections
But Mugabe cannot frog-march an entire nation to the elections. On the face of it, he controls the key levers of power within the government - the police, the military, the electoral commission and the judiciary - that would enable him to push for an early poll. However, without the financial means to do so, Mugabe has little choice but to back down.
Even though Zimbabwe has been requesting SADC and its neighbours South Africa and Angola to help raise US $132m for the vote, it is practically impossible for the cash-strapped regional bloc to source funds within six weeks.
Adding to the woes, voter registration is expected to run until July 9, after Mugabe's proposed date for the elections.
From Lesotho to Madagascar
The SADC's predecessor, the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), was formed in 1980 by nine founding states, whose main focus was on economic and social development and did not include peace and security issues.
A separate regional body, the Front-Line States, had been created in 1979 with the aim of liberating all the southern African states. This group had an instrumental role in negotiating peace in Angola and Mozambique's civil wars as well as in the apartheid struggles of Namibia and South Africa.
Reconstituted as the SADC in 1992, the organisation's membership gradually increased to include newly independent Namibia, post-apartheid South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar (whose membership is currently suspended), Mauritius and the Seychelles.
The regional bloc's focus also expanded towards supporting political stability through the establishment of the SADC Organ on Politics Defence and Security Cooperation. With a mandate to facilitate conflict prevention and resolution, the SADC has intervened in regional affairs through mediation and military force, with mixed results.
In 1998, riots and rumours of a coup after an election dispute in Lesotho resulted in one of the first SADC-backed interventions, in which South Africa and Botswana troops were deployed to the mountainous kingdom.
Although South Africa and Botswana claimed the controversial intervention was a peacekeeping mission, questions were raised over its legitimacy, as there were no clear SADC guidelines authorising a regional armed response to an attempted coup.
More recently, the SADC's peacekeeping and conflict mediation initiatives have included a peacekeeping brigade in the DRC, led by Tanzania, but the force may not be as effective as originally expected. The SADC's early attempts to form an inclusive, transitional government in Madasgascar after a coup in 2009 also ended in failure.
Mixed success in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, the SADC's engagement has resulted in mixed success against the intransigent Zanu-PF party. To its credit, the bloc has managed to rein in Mugabe and prevent the dysfunctional power-sharing government from imploding. But the SADC has failed to enforce its calls for much-needed security, media and civil liberties reforms.
Tsvangirai's response to Mugabe's unilateral proclamation shows he is heavily reliant on the SADC's support for his call for democratic reforms before elections. Though Tsvangirari's MDC-T controls the parliamentary majority in Zimbabwe, power still lies in the hands of Mugabe and the Zanu-PF.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, Mugabe chairs the Joint Operations Command which is composed of the heads of the military, intelligence, prison services and police forces and meets in private on a weekly basis to discuss national security issues.
|Inside Story - Mugabe: 'Go and vote your own way'
As part of the Department for State Security under the President's Office, the intelligence services receives an unaudited budget allocation and is accountable only to the president.
The National Security Council, formed to reform the security sector under the coalition, is a powerless organisation whose ad hoc meetings have failed to coordinate an effective response to the military's openly partisan role in civilian politics.
The Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee was created in 2009 to monitor the inclusive government's progress towards political reform. Even though it appears to be a progressive institution, by its own leaders' admission JOMIC has been a weak and spineless body.
Both the MDC-T and the SADC, as an external actor, seem to lack the political will and capacity to ensure a more democratic environment to conduct the polls. Now, as the SADC holds talks, discussion of media and security sector reform may be sidelined once again as the debate over elections dominates the summit.
Should Zimbabwe's polls be conducted in the current conditions, there are fears that the polls will be held in the same hauntingly familiar repressive - and sometimes violent - environment in which Zimbabwe's elections have been held since the turn of the millennium.
In the bloodiest election ever in independent Zimbabwe's history, more than 36,000 were displaced and 180 people killed - mainly supporters of Tsvangirai's MDC-T - in political violence during the 2008 presidential elections.
Although Zimbabwe held a relatively peaceful constitutional referendum in March this year, a report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch details how opposition supporters were beaten by soldiers and told to vote for Zanu-PF in the upcoming polls.
Reports of state security forcing potential voters to register with the intention of voting for Zanu-PF sets a worrying trend for the conditions under which this winner-takes-all general election could be held.
Unless the SADC insists on a guarantee that state security will remain neutral during the election period, nothing much will happen. Although the SADC's quiet diplomacy has had positive effects, the lack of enforceable recommendations to depoliticise state institutions could mean Zanu-PF and its military men will win over Tsvangirai.
While Zimbabwe's leaders have returned to Harare to request the courts to defer the elections, possibly to August 14, mediation challenges remain for SADC. Seen as the guarantor and facilitator of Zimbabwe's power-sharing government, the SADC carries the expectations of the Zimbabwean people, the African Union and the wider international community to ensure Zimbabwe holds free and fair elections.
Tendai Marima is a freelance journalist and post-doctoral researcher based in Southern Africa.
Follow her on Twitter: @i_amten
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.