A top South African government official told Reuters on Thursday that preparations for an election in Zimbabwe at the end of the month were "not looking good", unusually strong criticism of President Robert Mugabe from his powerful neighbor.
Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma's special adviser on Zimbabwe, said Zuma had called Mugabe to tell him he was not pleased with the run-up to the poll on July 31, a date fixed by Mugabe after a Constitutional Court ruling but criticized by Mugabe's opponents and South Africa's government as too soon.
"We are concerned because things on the ground are not looking good," Zulu told Reuters.
The election is supposed to end five years of fractious unity government under a deal brokered by regional power South Africa following violent and disputed polls in 2008. With the credibility of the poll already called into question, those hopes are now waning.
South Africa wants to avoid a repeat of the 2008 violence, which brought a flood of refugees into the country and added a further burden on stretched state finances.
Zulu's comments are likely to infuriate the 89-year-old Mugabe, who labeled Zulu "stupid and idiotic" at a campaign rally this month after she repeated South Africa's call to delay the polling date by a few weeks to ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible.
Two days of advance voting for 70,000 police officers and soldiers on Sunday and Monday suggested the fears of a chaotic election will be borne out, raising the prospect of a disputed result and civil unrest in a country with a history of election violence.
In the special voting, long lines formed at polling stations and some people were unable to vote because ballot papers did not turn up at all - one of several logistical challenges acknowledged by the Election Commission.
SANCTIONS SET TO STAY
In addition to smooth logistics, South Africa wants cast iron guarantees that the army and police will end their open support of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
The South African government's verdict as to the quality of the vote has added significance because election observers from the European Union and United States are barred from entering Zimbabwe.
There have been no formal opinion polls but most analysts see ZANU-PF as the favorite given its monopoly of state media and the problems with voter registration encountered by many young, urban Zimbabweans - the support base of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's main challenger.
The United States said on Tuesday it was deeply concerned by a lack of transparency in the run-up to the vote, suggesting Washington was in no mood to ease sanctions against a victorious Mugabe and his inner circle even if he wins without violence.
Former colonial master Britain, from whom Zimbabwe won independence in 1980, also said its misgivings about the election justified maintaining European Union sanctions imposed more than a decade ago for suspected vote rigging and human rights abuses.
"We are concerned that a number of important electoral and other important democratic reforms have not been completed," a Foreign Office spokesman said.
British Member of Parliament Peter Hain, a former Africa minister and vocal Mugabe critic, said Mugabe's methods had changed from 2008, when at least 200 people, almost all of them Tsvangirai supporters, were killed, but that the entrenched president's disdain for a free and fair vote had not.
"In the past, he's relied more on brute force and violence. This time it's all sorts of double-deeds," Hain told Reuters. "It will be very hard for sanctions to be lifted if the outcome is as it looks to be - namely an election by bribery and constitutional chicanery."
While sanctions remain in place, Zimbabwe has no chance of rescheduling billions of dollars of defaulted World Bank and IMF debt, leaving it unable to access the multilateral credit needed to rebuild its economy.