Zimbabwe is too violent and undemocratic to hold elections this year, rights activists told reporters Thursday ahead of an emergency summit on the southern African country's crisis.
President Robert Mugabe's supporters are calling for polls before the year ends to replace a shaky coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party. The president has been accused of using violence and election fraud to hold onto power and independent groups have said the possibility of a vote has led to attacks on Mugabe's opponents.
Zimbabwe's unity government was established at the insistence of the country's neighbors in 2009 following violent and inconclusive 2008 elections. Most of the election violence has been blamed on Mugabe supporters.
South Africa, the regional powerhouse, will host a weekend summit to assess increasing tensions in Zimbabwe's coalition.
However, lawmaker Jonathan Moyo of Mugabe's party played down the significance of regional leaders intervening.
"The so-called roadmap to elections ... is the exclusive and sole responsibility of the people of Zimbabwe," he said.
Ahead of the weekend summit Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change have both accused each other of perpetrating violence.
Mugabe's party accused Tsvangirai's party of staging a bomb attack Sunday at the home of its own finance minister to ratchet up sympathy before the weekend summit, allegations Tsvangirai's group dismissed as ridiculous. No one was injured in the small bombing.
Harrison Nkomo of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said ahead of the South Africa meeting that his organization has documented nearly 900 human rights abuses, including illegal detentions, harassment and beatings, since January. He said many more may go unreported.
"Are we saying this is a turf ready for free and fair elections? From my perspective, no," Nkomo said.
Philip Pasirayi of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said that along with political violence, state broadcasters are lauding Mugabe and vilifying his opponents, and the voter roll has been compromised.
"This is the kind of environment that we're saying is tilted in favor of one political party," Pasirayi said.
The gathering of Zimbabwean activists in South Africa Thursday was briefly disrupted by a shoving and shouting match that appeared to pit Mugabe opponents and supporters against each another. Paul Verryn, a South African Methodist bishop whose Johannesburg church has become a shelter for Zimbabweans fleeing their country's political and economic meltdown, said the scuffle illustrated Zimbabwe's fierce divisions and high emotions.
Holding elections now, Verryn said, would be "a little bit like sending somebody who has been abused back into an environment of abuse."
Pasirayi's group is calling on the summit to insist that before Zimbabweans hold elections, they rewrite their constitution to guarantee basic rights; ensure soldiers do not meddle in politics; and reform the Zimbabwe electoral commission. Pasirayi's group said Zimbabwe's neighbors must also independently confirm that Zimbabwe is ready before it goes to the polls. Zimbabwe's neighbors also must work with the African Union and the United Nations to deploy peace monitors at least three months ahead of any vote, the group said.
Tiseke Kasambala, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwe researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Zimbabwe's neighbors must set deadlines and ensure they are met.
Kasambala praised South African President Jacob Zuma, who has been leading regional efforts to mediate a solution for Zimbabwe. Zuma's predecessor, former President Thabo Mbeki, had been accused of taking too soft a line with Mugabe.
In March, regional leaders including South Africa delivered what was read as a strong rebuke of Mugabe, calling for an end to political violence. That prompted sharp criticism of South Africans by Zimbabwe's state controlled press, which Kasambala said shows Zuma and his team are "doing something right."
Associated Press writer Gillian Gotora in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.