For most of this year no one knew if or when the most important election in Zimbabwe’s history would actually take place. There's been an on-again, off-again cat-and-mouse game led by President Robert Mugabe.
But now it seems President Mugabe is pushing for July 31 while Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says any elections before August 25 will be too early to allow critical reforms to take hold.
The election saga has had a circus quality even as Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s strongman since 1980, agreed to a new constitution earlier this year in what has been widely interpreted as a positive breakthrough.
The stakes for Zimbabwe are high in terms of carrying out a non-violent free and fair election that allows for some semblance of balanced media and restraint by security forces.
But now the election circus has reached a fever pitch, with anger expressed by a majority of contending parties in a letter of protest on June 10 about the July 31 date.
Since 2011, President Robert Mugabe's Zanu (PF) party has tried to force an early poll. Yet none of those occasions has caused as tense an atmosphere as the July 31 deadline.
While that deadline was set by the constitutional court, Mr. Tsvangirai said this week that Mugabe's use of the date is "unconstitutional and unlawful." He argues a July 31 date will allow Mugabe to escape the kind reforms agreed to as part of the “global political agreement” by which the coalition was set up.
Without reforms, the election can be easily rigged, the challengers say.
This has brought an escalating back and forth between forces behind the 89-year old ruler and his political challengers.
With a new constitution, Mugabe says the country is ready for what, to many analysts, will be the country's most important vote since the 1980 elections that gave the country its independence from Britain.
"The most important task … was putting in place a new constitution and we have already done that,” said ruling party spokesman Rugare Gumbo early this week. “We are also obliged to follow our own courts … the Constitutional Court has ruled that we must hold the elections before the end of July."
"We are a sovereign nation and cannot wait for some external forces to come and tell us when we can hold our elections and when we cannot," Mr. Gumbo added.
Yet opposition parties and political analysts accuse Mugabe of rigging the game.
"We want security sector and media reforms before we can talk of any elections,” says Abednico Bhebhe, deputy national secretary at the opposition MDC-T party. “How can we hold free and fair elections in an environment where soldiers tell people that they will not accept certain results and journalists are arrested, harassed, beaten and intimidated for writing about certain individuals and political parties.
"We are more than ready for the elections and have always said that even if it were to be held tomorrow, in three months, in three weeks, or in three years, we will still be ready, provided all the key reforms agreed to in the GPA are implemented,” he added.
Mugabe’s former minister of home affairs, Dumiso Dabengwa, who has left the ruling Zanu party to form his own party, Zapu, believes the country is not ready for elections without a complete overhaul of the voters' role.
"We cannot hold elections with the current voters' role, which has been patched and mended time and again. Some of the names included in that voters' roll are for people that died more than 100 years ago," said Mr. Dabengwa.
Human Rights Watch's Africa Advocacy Director, Tiseke Kasambala, believes all the progress scored by Zimbabwe's inclusive government would be "null and void" without security sector reforms.
She warned that Southern African Development Community leaders' lackadaisical approach to enforcing the reforms could see the country slide back to the post-election violence of 2008, depending on who wins.
She believes SADC leaders could stop that if they drew a code of conduct stipulating that the security forces remain impartial and that they would not interfere with the election process, citing recent inflammatory public statements issued by some security services chiefs against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. She said this could translate to widespread violence after the polls, especially if Mugabe were to lose.
"The explicit nature of statements from senior members of the police and army have been very worrying. We have heard them issue very inflammatory words against Morgan Tsvangirai, like calling him a psychiatric patient, a sell-out, and a puppet of the West. We fear that such statements could translate to widespread violence," said Kasambala.