On 31 July, Zimbabweans will go to the polls to vote in presidential, senate, national assembly and local government elections. The focus will be on the acrimonious battle for the presidency between the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, and the prime minster, Morgan Tsvangirai.
What is at stake?
After the violent elections in 2008, Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Tsvangirai's MDC-T (so named to distinguish it from the MDC-N, a breakaway faction of the MDC led by Welshman Ncube, the industry and commerce minister), were forced to form a coalition, which has, against the odds, overseen solid economic growth since 2010, due to the resurgence of agriculture and revenue from diamonds.
The re-emergence of the agricultural industry is of particular significance, as it formed the backbone of the economy until the policy of land reform was implemented.
Now, resettled farmers grow 40% of the country's tobacco and 49% of its maize. However, the economy is slowing, and unemployment is understood to be running at 85%, with youth unemployment a particular concern.
Education – formerly an area in which Zimbabwe excelled, with the highest literacy rate in Africa – has been especially slow to recover, owing to a lack of funding and a "brain drain". Although the economy is the most pressing issue for many Zimbabweans, youth unemployment and education will be two of the country's long-term challenges.
The two leaders have very different visions for Zimbabwe. Mugabe is under pressure from a hardcore section of his supporters to bring foreign-owned companies under "indigenous" control. This rhetoric appeals to Zimbabweans, especially young people, who are often forced to operate in the informal economy, which is traditionally unreliable. Tsvangirai, whose reputation has been tarnished by personal scandals and dissatisfaction with his leadership, wants to encourage foreign investment and reintegrate the country into the international community.
This is a pivotal moment for Zimbabwe, and the election outcome could mean the difference between a return to the turmoil after the 2008 vote or a continuation of the rebuilding process.
Will the elections be free and fair?
In a rare moment of co-operation, Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed a new constitution that stipulated all security forces and government institutions, including state media, must be impartial, and genuine reforms on freedom of speech must be implemented. However, by calling for elections to be held at the end of July, Mugabe has made sure there would not be enough time for all reforms to take place.
The electoral registration has also been tainted and, according to an independent audit carried out by the Research and Advocacy Unit, the names of more than a million people who are either deceased or have emigrated were found on the electoral roll.
Under these conditions, free and fair elections will be difficult, and there have been instances of politically motivated arrests.
Who will be the likely winner?
Questions about his personal life and the subsequent smear campaign, especially in the state media, have led to Tsvangirai losing support among urban voters. Zanu-PF has successfully portrayed him as a "western stooge". The MDC-T has failed to fully mobilise its support and its popularity has slumped from 38% in 2010 to 20% last year, according to a report by Freedom House.
But the party believes it will not be denied this time. It claims credit for Zimbabwe's economic recovery, as it was in charge of the financial portfolio, and the shortages that blighted everyday life have disappeared. However, because the majority of food is imported, prices are high. Lower-income families in the cities face particular challenges, as they cannot grow crops so must rely on rural relatives to provide the staples.
But backed by the state apparatus, a Mugabe victory seems inevitable, and many commentators predict a comfortable win against Tsvangirai. The same cannot be said about Zanu-PF. Dogged by infighting between "hardliners", who want foreign-owned businesses to be owned by the black majority, and more conciliatory "reformists", the party appears to be in the midst of an ideological battle. The loss of key politicians has left the party weaker, but loyalty to Mugabe remains strong.
The real concern for both parties is the loss of votes to emerging rivals such as MDC-N and older parties including Zapu. The issue is of great concern for MDC-T, which risks haemorrhaging votes to the likes of Zapu, whose traditional stronghold is Matabeleland.
If Mugabe wins the presidency, he will probably oversee a fractured government. With local government, national assembly and senate seats up for grabs, pacts and coalitions may be the order of the day.
Uniting a fractious government will be his main challenge and, considering his age, 89, it could be his biggest. In order to overcome the deep issues the country faces with high unemployment and an education system that is struggling for funding and results, Mugabe will have to be able work successfully with a divided government.
What if Mugabe loses?
Both parties have agreed to accept the result irrespective of the winner. Yet the language from the campaign suggests the opposite. After military intervention in Egypt, many commentators worry that if Mugabe loses at the polls, the same will happen in Zimbabwe. Some senior military officers loyal to Mugabe have strongly indicated that they would not accept Tsvangirai as president. The generals are loyal to Mugabe, as he appointed them and they have profited immensely under him, but the allegiance of the rank and file is unknown. So while the threat from the military is real, it should not be overstated.
Avoiding the violence that followed the 2008 election will need to be the priority of the Southern African Development Community, but by capitulating on reforms and allowing Mugabe to dictate terms, it is likely that anything but a victory for him will mean more bloodshed.