By Cris Chinaka
HARARE (Reuters) - Just after Zimbabwe's top court told President Robert Mugabe to hold elections before the end of July, he appeared in a documentary combining domestic campaign mode with a diplomatic charm offensive.
In the fly-on-the-wall show on South African television the 89-year-old opened up on the armed struggle for independence from Britain and making love to his 47-year-old wife.
He also revealed he wanted to add to his 33 years at the helm of the poor, land-locked southern African nation.
The footage provided a rare glimpse of Mugabe's human side, surrounded by his family, and turned heads in Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor, which is likely to be a major funder of an election and also a judge of its quality.
But Africa's oldest head of state skirted around the reforms to the army, police and media that he is under pressure to carry out to ensure a peaceful and credible vote.
With the court giving him less than 60 days to call the election, there would be little time - even if he wanted to - to make any meaningful changes to state institutions that remain firmly in his camp.
"My people still need me and when people need you to lead them, it is not time, sir — it doesn't matter how old you are — to say goodbye," he told South African interviewer Dali Tambo in the documentary, aired on Sunday but shot several weeks earlier.
Five years after the disputed and violent elections that spawned a fractious coalition with his main adversary, Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's neighbors are desperate to avoid a rerun of a poll that sparked an exodus of opposition supporters.
The regional 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) has called a summit this weekend to help Harare raise the estimated $132 million needed for the election, and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says it will use the opportunity to tackle Mugabe on the issue of reforms.
But with the economy bouncing back since 2008 from hyperinflation and a 40 percent economic contraction over the previous eight years, there is every chance that, even in a fair fight, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party might win.
Although there are no formal opinion polls, surveys in the last year by Freedom House, a U.S. political think tank, and African research group Afro-Barometer have given Mugabe a narrow lead over Tsvangirai, who has suffered hits to his personal and professional reputation since entering government.
"Mugabe's position is informed by his belief that he will win the elections and that ZANU-PF has recovered enough after 2008 to survive Morgan Tsvangirai," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at Harare's University of Zimbabwe.
"It is a gamble but we are in an environment in which you cannot rule out ZANU-PF."
The MDC disputes the findings of unfavorable voter surveys, saying Zimbabweans are still too afraid to express themselves freely after the 2008 bloodshed, and remains confident of victory.
In March, Zimbabwe's 13 million people overwhelmingly approved a new constitution to replace the one forged in the dying days of British colonial rule in 1979.
The new charter lays the foundations for a more balanced political playing field by trimming the powers of the president and enshrining notions such as freedom of the media.
But the MDC argues that the vote can only be truly fair if broadcast media are opened up to all parties, new voters are allowed to register freely and the army and police keep out of politics.
The court ruling means there is now precious little time to drive through real change.
This is especially true of the army, whose leaders are open in their contempt for Tsvangirai, a former union leader who did not play a prominent role in the war against the white-minority government that ran what was then Rhodesia until 1980.
The military and police have also been accused of vote rigging and intimidation, leading to Western sanctions against Mugabe and senior ZANU-PF apparatchiks.
As such, analysts fear any reforms will amount to little more than fig-leaves - army commanders being asked to issue statements affirming their neutrality and regulators licensing private broadcasters just before the polls.
"We might go through some rituals but I don't see anything changing much on the ground," said Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law professor and critic of both Tsvangirai and Mugabe.
"I am sure Mugabe will concede some ground on some of the issues in deference to SADC and to retain the regional support he needs for political legitimacy."
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Anna Willard)