Credible elections in Zimbabwe were among the main objectives of the talks between the Zimbabwean government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last year. But despite new regulations, Zimbabwe's polls are unlikely to be free or fair.

President Robert Mugabe's government would like the world to believe otherwise, arguing that political space has been opened up for the opposition to campaign. Neighbouring states should look beyond the rhetoric as, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

For weeks now, I've been travelling through Zimbabwe's 10 provinces. Ordinary voters around the country described to me how supporters of the ruling party have physically attacked and intimidated people perceived to support the opposition.

Food has become a political weapon. In nearly all the provinces I visited, Zimbabweans told me that only supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF receive state-subsidised grain or farming equipment. An elderly man from Marange in Manicaland province told me: "If you show yourself to support the opposition, you will starve."
In Mutare, even a Zanu-PF loyalist confirmed that the party manipulates the distribution of food according to political loyalty: "It is very easy. Only those who are on the councillors' lists can access the grain," she told me. "At our rallies, only known supporters of Zanu-PF are allowed to attend."

Despite improved electoral laws, across Zimbabwe I found a chaotic -- and easily abused -- voter registration process. The electoral commission is unprepared and partisan. The voting procedure will be new and more complex than before, but there has been minimal voter education around the country. The opposition's access to the broadcast media is restricted.

A local activist from Makonde constituency in Mashonaland West province told me about the intense intimidation of opposition supporters in his area. "The opposition MDC are visited daily by Zanu-PF youth who shout and sing outside their homes," he said. "They call them sell-outs and tell them they will deal with the MDC candidates after the elections."

In spite of the intimidation, violence has been less conspicuous than in previous elections - in part because of prohibitions in the reformed Electoral Act. But, given the widespread violence during elections in 2000 and 2002, mere threats or allusions to past acts are enough to scare people.

In Masvingo province, a primary-school teacher told me how ruling party youths attacked him after he urged people to register to vote.

"They hit me with clubs on my head," he told me. "They displayed me before the rest of the school and now they are keeping an eye on me." Terrible scars were still visible on his head a month after the attack.

The police claim they are taking a "zero tolerance" approach to violence ahead of the polls, although many members of the police were previously involved in attacks on the opposition, civil society activists and perceived opposition supporters. None of these incidents, documented by Human Rights Watch, have been investigated. The teacher in Masvingo reported the incident, but the perpetrators were never caught.

The onus for reporting violations now rests on regional observers, in particular the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission. International and local observers who charged that previous elections in 2000 and 2002 were blatantly fraudulent were not invited to return for parliamentary elections in 2005, nor for the general elections.

Mugabe's government claims that the elections will conform to the SADC guidelines and principles governing democratic elections. South Africans and their SADC neighbours have a key role to play in the run-up to the elections. SADC should call on the Zimbabwean government to grant access to all election sites. To gauge compliance, observers need to judge the political context in which the elections are being held, not just the voting process itself.

Previous post-election assessments by SADC were alarmingly positive, despite widespread human rights abuses and irregularities in the last three polls. If South Africa and other SADC observers are serious about ending Zimbabwe's political crisis, then another round of flawed elections in Zimbabwe cannot be followed by a "business-as-usual" approach.

South Africans have already seen hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans vote with their feet by crossing the Limpopo to flee hunger, violence and persecution. Now is the time for SADC to help ordinary Zimbabweans to exercise their right to vote freely at home.