Robert Mugabe, it seems, has outflanked his rival and prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai-again. By the time this journal goes to press, the Zimbabwean president looks likely to be reinstalled as the world’s oldest executive head of state (Israel’s Shimon Peres is 203 days older but has largely ceremonial powers).

Mugabe’s rivals might have been forgiven for thinking that, at 89, his widely rumoured ill health would have already brought down the curtain on his 33 years in power. In 2008, WikiLeaks released a secret US diplomatic cable in 2008 in which Mugabe’s confidant Gideon Gono, an old friend and head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, told the US ambassador that Mugabe had advanced prostate cancer and was unlikely to live beyond 2013. Rumours of health problems-spurred by Mugabe’s frequent trips to Singapore, supposedly for eye checks-are routinely played down. However, one widely held reason for the sudden acceleration towards an election is that Mugabe was regarded as being unable to sustain a long, arduous campaign, with all the travelling that would entail (though rumours of a plot within Zanu-PF to sabotage the presidential helicopters led to them being grounded, potentially derailing the ‘fast-track’ plan).

However unlikely it seems, Mugabe could technically be in power for another 10 years because although the new constitution limits the head of state to two five-year terms, it does not apply retrospectively. Though “President for Life” smacks of Hastings Banda and Idi Amin, many believe Mugabe wants to cling to office as this gives himimmunity from prosecution for human rights abuses.

Confusion swirled around the exact date of the polls. Mugabe wanted them held earlier; Tsvangirai, the 61-year-old leader of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-which in Zimbabwe’s fraught coalition government is simultaneously partner and opposition-demanded they be held in October to give enough time to implement reforms to level the electoral playing field. In the 2008 polls, Tsvangirai had defeated Mugabe in the first round but failed to win enough votes to be declared the outright winner: Tsvangirai won 47%, Mugabe 43% and the former finance minister Simba Makoni, who had recently split from Zanu-PF, got 8% of the presidential votes cast. Mugabe won the subsequent run-off vote after Tsvangirai pulled out in the face of widespread attacks on MDC members-some 200 people were killed, while thousands were tortured and beaten.

After declaring that elections were imminent for more than two years, Zanu-PF appeared to have seized the advantage when on 12 June Mugabe proclaimed snap elections for 31 July. Indeed, in a ruling on 31 May the constitutional court, Zimbabwe’s highest court, said Mugabe had violated his constitutional role by not calling them for when parliament’s five-year term ended on 29 June. This was in response to a court application by Jealousy Mawarire, founder of the Centre for Elections and Democracy in Southern Africa, who said he wanted to clarify the election date. Some queried his motives, accusing him of furthering Zanu-PF’s agenda of hastening elections, but hedenied being a front for the ruling party: ‘One can’t say in July it is an early election. Under the agreements made in the unity government, elections were supposed to have taken place [with]in 18 months, but we are already more than 48 months behind.’

Judge Luke Malaba, in a dissenting opinion, said his colleagues ‘defied logic’ in finding Mugabe had breached his constitutional responsibilities ‘and at the same time authorising him to continue acting unlawfully’ by proclaiming a July date. ‘That is a very dangerous principle and has no basis in law,’ he wrote. He said that under the new constitution elections could be held within four months of parliament’s dissolution and to hold them in July compromised the rights of the people ‘to play a meaningful role in the electoral process’.

Tsvangirai and the industry minister, Welshman Ncube, applied to postpone the polls to August, saying reforms could not be completed by 31 July. Those demands were written into the new constitution overwhelmingly accepted in a referendum in March, the MDC said. Regional leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who were tasked with overseeing Zimbabwe’s uneasy power-sharing after the 2008 elections, first said they would respect the ruling over the dates, then-under pressure to make the polls as free and transparent as possible-urged a delay. Mugabe then railed at the bloc and threatened to leave it before Zanu-PF, in what Africa Confidential dubbed ‘a piece of political theatre’, applied for a postponement itself.

Tsvangirai, though, is probably not looking beyond these elections as he stares at the prospect of failing again to secure an unequivocal majority. ‘President Mugabe is acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally,’ he said of his rival’s attempts to finesse the election date. ‘As prime minister, I cannot and will not accept this.’ But, adding to the sense that he was being carried along by events, he reluctantly launched his party’s election campaign.

Dumisani Nkomo, an analyst at the Habakkuk Trust, said proclaiming the election date, and ignoring the reforms underway, fitted into Zanu-PF’s strategy of blindsiding attempts to establish the necessary checks and balances. “The systems that should ensure there is a credible election won’t be in place. Foreign and local observers won’t be in place, there would be manipulation in terms of special ballots,” he said.

McDonald Lewanika, director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC), agreed: ‘For Zanu-PF, if the state machinery is ready, they are ready, because they don’t intend to win this election on the ground.’

Human rights observers have added to calls for reforms. In May a report on Election Scenarios by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based thinktank, warned: ‘A reasonably free vote is still possible, but so too are deferred or disputed polls, or even a military intervention. … The pervasive fear of violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections contradicts political leaders’ rhetorical commitments to peace, and raises concerns that the country may not be ready to go to the polls.’

The ICG also noted: ‘Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [ZEC] faces significant challenges. Limited government funding threatens its capacity-building, public outreach and ability to ensure the integrity of the voters’ roll.’ Professor Reginald Austin, meanwhile, resigned as head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, blaming its lack of funding and independence-he was replaced by another commissioner with close ties to Zanu-PF.

Human Rights Watch warned in June: ‘Zimbabwe’s unity government is going to have to rein in the security forces and keep them out of politics if the elections are going to have any meaning.’ But parliament, the ICG ruefully concluded, had been exposed as ‘largely toothless’ because of the army, police and Central Intelligence Organisation commanders’ refusal to answer to MDC ministers and the lack of oversight of security forces.

Amnesty International warned: ‘The clampdown on the work of human rights defenders is a worrying indicator that government agencies remain actively hostile to civil society.’ The Robert Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights said: ‘Routine intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary criminal prosecutions of human rights defenders, lawyers, and political activists in Zimbabwe threaten the rights of all citizens to participate freely in public affairs.’

Meanwhile, the South African Broadcasting Corporation is to end free-to-view broadcasts to Zimbabwe. ThoughBusinessDay did say the move ‘appeared to be the result of commercial litigation rather than political censorship’, it leaves most Zimbabweans with only the ‘hopelessly biased’ state-controlled ZBC as the default broadcaster.

Aside from the issue of whether free and fair elections could be held, there was the question of whether Zimbabwe could pay for them. At Chatham House in April, Tendai Biti, the MDC finance minister, said: ‘The Zimbabwean government does not have the resources to fund the upcoming election.’ Speaking to NewsDay in July, Biti admitted that the government had still not secured the $130m required by the ZEC. ‘We don’t have money for these elections, and everyone knows it. It’s a horror movie except that you are not watching the movie, you are part of it,’ he said a few days later. ‘The whole thing is an absolute, undiluted dog’s breakfast.’

Meanwhile, voter registration has been, if anything, even more problematical. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network called for registration to be extended, estimating the number of missing urban voters (those most likely to vote against Zanu-PF) at 750,000, with 400,000 young voters (also more likely to vote MDC) absent from the rolls. It put urban registration rates at 68%-but more than 99% in rural wards. It also found 114-year-old ‘ghost voters’-remarkably long-lived in a country where life expectancy is under 52 years.

On ‘election hygiene‘, Biti said: ‘The current voters roll we have has got about 8 million people, 4 million of those are dead. But the dead always tend to resurrect. Are we able to clean the voters roll?’ An Israeli technology company, Nikuv International, has been accused of helping this alleged manipulation. Nikuv, which operates from within the defence ministry, run by Zanu-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, has refused to answer questions about who is paying it and how it has been updating the register.

Amid dark warnings of a rerun of 2008, it seems surprising to find a rehabilitation of Mugabe simultaneously underway. Amid a reappraisal of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution begun by Prof Ian Scoones of Sussex University, the Guardian suggested Mugabe could ‘complete the unlikely circle from liberation hero to authoritarian villain to redeemed father of the nation.’

Elsewhere, the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele, who has reported on Zimbabwe since the 1980s, referred to a subsequent study of land redistribution, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. Steele dismissed the ‘myth of a cornucopia when white people ran most of commercial agriculture and a “black disaster” thereafter’ and noted that ‘production is now back to the levels of the late 1990s and more land is under cultivation than was worked by white farmers.’

Teresa Smart, one of the study’s authors, argued in a Chatham House discussion, Land Reform in Zimbabwe Revisited: ‘The Zimbabwe economy still has great problems, but the 160,000 land reform farmers are the dynamic sector that is leading Zimbabwe out of its crisis.’

Martin Plaut points out on African Arguments that two researchers behind Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land are beneficiaries of the land invasions. Nevertheless, it does suggest a rebalancing of the narrative of Zimbabwe since independence.

Others see hopeful signs of a political convergence between the main parties and a view is gaining traction that if Burma, for example, has had sanctions almost removed then so too should Zimbabwe. With real GDP growth expected to average nearly 7% from 2011, according to African Economic Outlook, there is also optimism about prospects for rapid development, despite the corruption and tax evasion-Biti told a Chatham House audience: ‘Diamond exports last year were $800m, of which $45m came to the treasury.’

In case anyone might become too optimistic, a Business Day editorial warns that ‘a repeat of 2008 is looming’. The ICG said: ‘There is growing sense that the best way forward is further power sharing, though this is only helpful if objectives are established and widely accepted.’ To avert another disputed election, it urges SADC to set ‘red lines’ and benchmarks for the polls, restrain the security forces, while bringing the parties together to find consensus around reforms. It also calls for the UN to be allowed to examine the election system. Unfortunately, its last, and perhaps most important recommendation, has already been ignored: ‘Ensure the country does not rush into elections before there is clarity and consensus on, and practical implementation of, necessary reforms.’

So what are the prospects for the MDC’s champion? Tsvangirai has pledged to create jobs, boost manufacturing and mining, and bring back the Zimbabwean dollar if economic conditions allow. He also promised to introduce free primary education and free maternity healthcare within the first 100 days of his presidency. With unemployment estimated at 90%, the MDC manifesto promises 1m jobs over five years, according to Africa Report.

For Simon Allison, in the Daily Maverick, a defensive Tsvangirai ‘sounds like he’s already given up hope’.

‘We participate with a heavy heart,’ said Tsvangirai. ‘We have tried our best over the last four years, against serious resistance from our counterparts in government, to ensure that this country is prepared for a genuine, free, fair and credible election. Regrettably, what we have witnessed in the last few weeks is a concerted effort designed to rob the election of legitimacy before it has even begun.’

But, as Petina Gappah pointed out in the Guardian last year, Tsvangirai had lost much credibility himself: for failing to assert himself and his party, despite winning a majority in the first round in 2008, but also because his personal life: ‘raises, once again, questions about the prime minister’s judgment and fitness for office’.

‘Even his allies are lining up to speak out,’ she said. The Zimbabwe Independent asked: is he fit to govern?, while former Daily News editor Geoff Nyarota urged Tsvangirai to have regard for the dignity of his office. ‘Certainly, his multiple, and, apparently, simultaneous, sexual relationships with partners who appear to have been subject to no vetting not only demonstrates his extremely poor judgment, they also raise security concerns,’ wrote Gappah. ‘He has made it woefully easy for his enemies to portray him as a sex-crazed maniac: the acerbic Jonathan Moyo famously wrote that Tsvangirai approaches every issue with a shut mind and every woman with an open zip.’

The Guardian quoted a senior MDC figure as saying of the prime minister: ‘He’s been a total disaster. He’s let us all down. But the important thing to remember is the MDC is bigger than Morgan Tsvangirai.’

One can’t help feeling that Tsvangirai’s moment has passed-he had his chance and blew it. Tendai Biti, the widely respected finance minister and MDC secretary-general, may be a better prospect to take Zimbabwe’s fragile, fissile opposition forward.

But it is not just the opposition that appears beset by problems: Zanu-PF is increasingly divided between reformists and hardliners over who will succeed Mugabe. Gleefully exacerbating those tensions is Baba Jukwa. The mysterious blogger (or bloggers) now has more followers on Facebook than both the president and prime minister, with at least 200,000 reading details of Zanu-PF’s infighting.

The credibility of this presumed insider was established when the blog correctly predicted the sudden, unexplained death in June of Edward Chindori-Chininga, an MP who had chaired a committee that wrote a damning report about Zanu-PF officials’ role in corruption at the Chiadzwa diamond fields. He was far from the first critic of Zanu-PF leaders and security apparatus to have died in a car accident. Though Zimbabwe’s roads are undoubtedly dangerous, this list compiled by the South African Mail & Guardian suggests that driving becomes more risky if one threatens the status quo. Even more explosive (but also more dubious) was an apparently secret document reported in theGuardian alleging a Zimbabwean assassination plot against Jacob Zuma.

There has also been a shift among western governments that have been Mugabe’s fiercest critics. Business Dayreported the EU’s ambassador to South Africa saying that if Zimbabwe’s elections were ‘internationally recognised’, African observers declared them free and fair, and there were no opposition protests, EU would lift remaining sanctions. NewsDay reported the US ambassador to Harare promising a shift in policy, with the State Departmentsuggesting it may lift sanctions if elections went well.

And what role can the Commonwealth play in these pivotal times for Zimbabwe? For all the talk in the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting communiqué of bringing the country back into the fold, with two weeks to go before the elections no mention could be found on the Commonwealth Secretariat website.