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.
The message from Congress to the State Department is that “there is no way these elections can be credible,” said the congressional source. “If it’s [Mr. Mugabe’s party] that wins, we will send out a critical message.”
Mr. Tsvangirai wanted to delay the elections out of concern that they would be rigged. The 15-nation Southern African Development Community also urged Zimbabwe to postpone the vote by at least two weeks.
However, Zimbabwe’s top court upheld the July 31 election date.
“There is no question that these elections will not be perfect, that they have not been well-organized or well-financed, but they should go forward,” said Johnnie Carson, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute for Peace who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs until March.
“It does offer an opportunity for change and the beginning of a political renewal in Zimbabwe,” added Mr. Carson, who also has served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has prevented Western observers from monitoring the election.
In early voting, more than half the 70,000 security and government officials eligible to vote were unable to cast ballots because they were not printed and delivered on time.
After the 2008 elections, the Southern African Development Community brokered a settlement that produced a national unity government with Mr. Mugabe as president and Mr. Tsvangirai as prime minister. The government was tasked with drafting a new constitution and instituting political reforms.
While a new constitution is in place, reforms, which would have played a crucial role in ensuring a credible vote, are not.
“The power-sharing agreement led to an ending of the violence; that is its first and foremost achievement,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“What it has been unable to do is carry through the political reforms that many of Zimbabwe’s foreign friends think are necessary.”
Mr. Tsvangirai’s role in the unity government has tarnished his reputation. He has failed to prevent any of the human rights abuses that continued after the unity government was formed.
“There is criticism that, in effect, [Mr. Tsvangirai] and his political party have been co-opted by the ZANU-PF,” Mr. Campbell said.
Mr. Mugabe’s advanced age, meanwhile, has fueled speculation about a likely successor.
“After the elections are over, and should Mr. Mugabe die, we can anticipate a fair amount of infighting,” Mr. Campbell said.
Among those likely to succeed Mr. Mugabe are Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, the army chief; Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa; Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa; and State Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi — all of whom are considered hard-liners — or Vice President Joice Mujuru, a moderate.
The United States, which has imposed sanctions against Mr. Mugabe and his party’s leadership, is constrained in its ability to press the government of Zimbabwe to hold credible elections.
The onus falls on South Africa, Mr. Mugabe’s southern neighbor, with which he has cordial ties.
“South Africa needs to step up to the plate,” said the congressional source.
Earlier this month, Mr. Mugabe dismissed South African President Jacob Zuma’s international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, as “a stupid, idiotic street woman” — a local reference to a prostitute — after she questioned Zimbabwe’s election preparedness.
Mr. Zuma later rebuked his aides for making “unfortunate statements.”