He might be 89 and nearing the end of his political life, but Robert Mugabe won't be quietly slipping away. In a bold and defiant move, the Zimbabwean autocrat has announced a controversial election plan that could out-manoeuvre his opponents and extend his 33-year grip on power.
Mr. Mugabe, to the fury of his rivals, announced on Thursday that he is calling an election for July 31, even though he has failed to introduce long-promised reforms to ensure a fair vote.
His main opponent, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, vowed to fight the election date. Calling it unlawful and unilateral, he warned that it could trigger a constitutional crisis, and he hinted that he might boycott the election, robbing it of credibility.
The clash over the election date has heightened tensions in Zimbabwe, raising the spectre of another chaotic period of violence next month if the election goes ahead.
Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, used a presidential decree on Thursday to bypass parliament and set the election date, ignoring his power-sharing agreement with Mr. Tsvangirai's political party.
"President Mugabe is acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally," Mr. Tsvangirai told journalists in Harare. "As prime minister, I cannot and will not accept this."
Mr. Mugabe will be in a strong position to win any election next month because he still has an iron grip on Zimbabwe's military, police, security agents and broadcast media.
The commander of Zimbabwe's armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, declared last month that he will never serve Mr. Tsvangirai. He made it clear that the military will remain loyal only to Mr. Mugabe. His top generals have pointedly refused to salute the Prime Minister.
The police and the state media, similarly, are slavishly obedient to Mr. Mugabe and his political allies.
With his control of those same levers of power, Mr. Mugabe and his ruling party launched a brutal wave of violence during the 2008 election, and Mr. Tsvangirai eventually abandoned the election, even though he had won the first round of voting.
After the 2008 violence, Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai eventually agreed to form a coalition. But as part of their power-sharing agreement, Mr. Mugabe promised to reform the security sector and the media – a promise he has failed to keep.
"The country is patently not ready for proper elections," said a report on Zimbabwe published this week by the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think tank.
"The security agencies that have played such a decisive role in past elections are far from being impartial," it added.
Zimbabwe's highest court ruled last month that the election must be held by July 31, but critics have questioned the independence of the court and the activist who brought the case to the court.
Mr. Mugabe's rivals have also complained that the July 31 election would not allow enough time for a proper voter registration. They say the current registry of voters is a shambles, and vulnerable to political manipulation.
An important regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, will consider the Zimbabwe issue in a summit this weekend. If it refuses to endorse the July 31 election date, Mr. Mugabe might be forced to postpone it.