By Peroshni Govender and Jon Herskovitz
PRETORIA (Reuters) - With a big vested interest in the stability of Zimbabwe, South Africa is keen that next week's election in its northern neighbor should fairly reflect the people's wishes, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said on Wednesday.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into South Africa after violence in the last election, in 2008, landing it with an expensive humanitarian crisis. But since it helped to broker a unity government, the economy has been recovering, creating opportunities for South African business.
However, preparations for the July 31 elections have been far from smooth, with President Robert Mugabe's rivals in the Movement for Democratic Change alleging that his ZANU-PF party is making it hard for their voters to register. Washington has said it is not convinced the vote will be free and fair.
In an interview with Reuters, Motlanthe said Pretoria had no preference as to the result.
"Whatever the outcome of the elections, it should be a free expression of the will of Zimbabwe. That is how we view it."
But he also said political stability was a precondition for economic development. "We have a vested interest as a country in ensuring that there is peace and stability in Zimbabwe. We can only benefit from that."
South Africa's major banks, retailers and mining firms have operations in Zimbabwe and positioning themselves to expand if the economy, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be worth $9.8 billion in 2012, continues to grow. Zimbabwe spends the equivalent of 20 percent of its GDP on imports from South Africa.
Yet two days of advance voting this month for 63,000 police officers and soldiers suggested that fears of election chaos will be borne out, raising the prospect of a disputed result.
Motlanthe said that, so far, there were no indications that the widespread violence and intimidation surrounding the 2008 election would be repeated, but added:
"If anything causes an implosion in Zimbabwe, we would with immediate effect have to deal with the consequences".
Motlanthe said President Jacob Zuma spoke regularly with Mugabe, who has made disparaging public comments about Pretoria's interventions, even calling one of Zuma's top envoys "stupid and idiotic".
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Pretoria and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Kevin Liffey)