Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has unleashed brutal attacks on political rivals, executed rampant violations of human rights and crippled the economy during the 33 years of his autocratic regime.
On Wednesday, he will ask his countrymen to give him one more term in office.
Mr. Mugabe’s main rival in the presidential election, Morgan Tsvangirai, serves as prime minister in an uneasy power-sharing agreement brokered after the 2008 contest was marred by violence.
Most analysts and foreign governments, including the Obama administration, predict that the election again will be neither free nor fair because of repressive laws and ominous signals from Zimbabwe’s security forces, which are deeply loyal to the 89-year-old president.
“The leaders of these [security forces] have already made highly inflammatory statements that they would not accept a result that does not endorse Mr. Mugabe as president of the country,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “If the result doesn’t please the security forces, then we could see a repeat of 2008.”
In 2008, a narrow lead in the first round of voting for Mr. Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change triggered a violent backlash from security forces and supporters of Mr. Mugabe’s political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). About 200 people were killed, more than 5,000 were beaten and tortured, and about 36,000 were left homeless, according to Human Rights Watch.
Protesting the attacks on his supporters, Mr. Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of the vote.
Many Zimbabweans have been intimidated by the experience of 2008 and the absence of accountability.
“People live in perpetual fear that this violence would come again because their neighbors, who committed the violence, have remained in the same communities,” Ms. Kasambala said.
But a congressional source who spoke on background said it is precisely because most Zimbabweans are intimidated that a repeat of the cycle of violence of 2008 is unlikely.
“The opposition has already been beaten into submission, so the government doesn’t need to employ the same tactics,” the source said.