Yesterday the Mugabe regime extended its total disregard for the SADC process and unilaterally announced that the elections would be held on the 29th March (I had expected the 28th March) and that nomination day would be the 8th February. The nomination day is the day to watch as it was selected very carefully by the regime and is a cunning part of the overall strategy they worked out 10 months ago.

What Zanu PF did when confronted in March 2007, with the demand by South Africa that they hold the elections on schedule in March 2008 and that they hold them under 'free and fair' conditions, they convened the 'Joint Operations Command' and evolved a plan which they have been implementing since then. Like all their plans it had one central objective - how to hold onto power at all costs.

First they resolved to smash the organizational structures of the MDC, then they agreed to go along with the demands of Mbeki and the SADC but in the conviction that they could manipulate this process and avoid dismantling the system they had built up over the past decade which has enabled them to determine, in advance, whatever result they thought they needed from the election itself. Then finally, they agreed to take measures to reduce the urban vote and bring the urban population to heel in the same way that they had built up control systems in the rural areas.

In retrospect you can now see clearly how these three basic strategies have been played out. Three days after the JOC meeting in Harare, the leadership of the MDC was beaten and brutalized in Highfield at a prayer meeting. Many were hospitalized and two activists were shot and killed by the police. Morgan Tsvangirai was beaten unconscious and partially lost the ability to speak for a while. Since then thousands of MDC activists have been beaten and driven out of the country. The MDC structures in many parts of the country have been wiped out. The Party Headquarters has been smashed twice with the loss of all records and millions of dollars of damage.

The Regime has co-operated with South African mediators in the SADC process but has dragged its feet and delayed agreement until the very last moment, only to then turn around and say (disingenuously) that there was 'insufficient time' to implement the agreement so the planned elections would go ahead under present conditions. When pressed to implement the agreements reached in 8 months of discussions that were meant to have taken three, Mugabe finally simply told Mbeki to get lost and that Zanu PF would not implement the deal beyond the modest reforms already agreed and implemented.

Just to drive home that message Mugabe has in the past week simply brushed aside the reforms already agreed, passed through Parliament and signed into law. POSA has been used to stop normal political activity, the Independent Electoral Commission is operating as if it was business as usual and military and security officers are being used to manage the electoral system in total violation of the new Electoral Act. Reforms in the registration of voters and the voter's roll are just being ignored. Now, they announce a nomination date that makes it almost impossible for the opposition to get its candidates registered for the poll.

At the same time as this was going on, they launched the campaign to destroy what was left of the independent business sector using as a pretext price controls and 'indigenisation', a euphemism for extending Zanu control to all sectors of the economy. In a ruthless campaign that resembles the farm invasions that followed the Zanu PF defeat in the February 2000 referendum, the State has arrested 40 000 businessmen, crippled the retail and wholesale sector of the economy and announced the virtual nationalization of all major industrial and mining companies. In 10 months at least another million refugees have fled to South Africa and other countries. Only the most determined and innovative have survived.

Now the MDC faces the most crucial decision in its short life - do we run in the election and what can be done about this total violation of the SADC process?

I do not know what we will eventually do but I have confidence in our leadership, which has never let us down in making such decisions in the past. Right now I am sure, that like me last night, they are not doing much sleeping. We have been ambushed, well and truly by the Zanu PF and their security cohorts and it does not help that the South African leadership is in the same boat.

I am being bombarded by e-mails saying that we should boycott the elections. They say that if we run we give credence to the Mugabe regime and the pretext that they are democrats. Its not quite as simple as that and that might, in fact be one of the goals of the Regime in this exercise. The tragedy is that the South Africans have not been willing, when it matters most, to use their very considerable power to secure compliance from Zanu PF. But we have no choice but to live with that reality.

Why run when the odds are so stacked against us? In my view the arguments are very powerful. In the first instance we have to ask what is the alternative - violence and more killing? Zanu PF would love that and use the violence to justify a clamp down that most African leaders would endorse. The possibility of change will recede and it could be years before we are again offered such an opportunity. We might even then be forced to retreat into violence and many of us would not accept that as a means of change.

We are not alone on this pitch - there are at least 5 other political parties and although they are tiny and carry no threat to the regime, they might be allowed to take a few seats and would give credence to the Zanu PF regime that would follow. Most Zanu candidates would run unopposed and this would give them an easy and defensible ride back into power. Again change recedes and Zimbabwe becomes just another failed African State relying on donor aid to feed an entrapped and impoverished population that does not have the energy to oppose the regime.

Then we must not forget a lesson we learned from the war - ambushes are a great strategy if your opponent does not know what lies in store for him. If you can discover your enemy's strategy and location and timing for an ambush, you can turn the tables on him and the result can be very satisfying. It is just possible that we could do that.

We need to get that nomination date changed - put back to where it should be in March, then we need to combine forces and put up single candidates in all electoral districts and most important, we need to control the final stage of the ambush - the election itself. We must use the instruments we have to ensure the poll is watched, recorded and reported on from every polling station - without exception. I do not think we really need to worry about what people will do with their ballots - they will vote overwhelmingly for change, there is no alternative. What we have to stop is the false balloting and the manipulation of the count.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 26th January 2008