They assembled at seven in the morning at the tube-lit lecture theatre at Teachers College in Harare — truck drivers, mechanics, labour activists, and churchgoers — and waited to collect the badge with “Observer” printed across the front in oversized capital letters.

“We cannot have a repeat of 2008,” said one observer, “Our job is to be non-partisan and ensure that the poll is free and fair.”

As Zimbabwe goes to polls, after the violently contested elections of 2008, seven thousand such poll observers, and their international counterparts would play a crucial role in assessing the legitimacy of a watershed election pitting former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai against Robert Mugabe (89), the freedom fighter who has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence in 1980.

In recent rallies, Mr. Mugabe has emphasised his party’s liberation credentials, and has portrayed his rival as a puppet of an imperialist agenda driven by western countries.

“Zimbabwe, which we fought for, died for, must be never be a colony again…the future must be a future that sees you carry the legacy that we are bequeathing — defence of your land, of your sovereignty, of your freedom,” said Mr. Mugabe at a recent rally, adding “It was Europeans of Britain who created MDC [Movement for Democratic Change, Mr. Tsvangirai’s opposition party], who created Tsvangirai as a politician.”

Mr. Tsvangirai has described these elections as a “crossroads for our country”, and has pointed to the economic turmoil of the late 1990s as evidence for the need for change. Mr. Mugabe, he said, has refused to relinquish power despite being defeated by the MDC in “the 2002, 2005 and 2008 elections”.

Run-off

In 2008, Mr. Tsvangirai’s MDC party out-polled Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, prompting a run-off that descended into pitched street-battles in which hundreds of MDC supporters were brutalised by security forces. Zimbabwe’s neighbours eventually brokered an agreement forcing the MDC and ZANU-PF into an awkward unity government.

This year, elections were expedited when Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ordered the government to hold elections by July 31. Poll preparations have been hasty and chaotic, leading many to fear that the losing party will reject the results and plunge the country back into chaos.

Registration shambolic

Election watchdogs have pointed that the voter registration process has been shambolic and hundreds of young Zimbabweans have been denied the opportunity to register. The Zimbabwe Election Commission was unable to provide ballot papers to all stations on time in early polling for police officials who will be on duty on election day.

ZEC has also been accused of printing too many ballot papers — as many as 11 million for a voting population of 6.4 million — raising the possibility of voter fraud. Political parties are yet to get copies of voter rolls amidst reports that about 100,000 voters above the age of 100 years are on the rolls.

“I don’t control the electoral process, I comply with, I obey the electoral process,” said Mr. Mugabe on Tuesday, denying allegations that his party was rigging the ballot.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mugabe said he would respect the verdict of the Zimbabwean people. “If you join a competition where there are only two outcomes — win or lose — if you lose then surrender to those who won,” he said.