One of the most crucial elections in Zimbabwe's history is now scheduled to be held next year, with the world watching closely. But Canada may be losing its chance to help make it a fair vote.
After a violent and tainted election in 2008, the vote next year could be a historic one, sending Zimbabwe on its way to full democracy after decades of autocratic rule by Robert Mugabe – if all goes well.
For years, the Canadian government has been supporting programs to strengthen Zimbabwe's elections, with funds for training, monitoring, voter education and constitutional reform. Those efforts are now threatened by Ottawa's recent $377-million cut to the budget of the Canadian International Development Agency.
Canada has been among the biggest backers of Zimbabwe's democratic development, so the Harper government's decision to halt CIDA's aid to Zimbabwe (along with four other African countries) means that Zimbabwe will be losing its Canadian support at a critical moment.
An existing $3.5-million CIDA program to boost Zimbabwe's democratic reforms was already scheduled to end next year. Ottawa is also shutting down its global human rights agency, Rights & Democracy, which has been forced to end its own democracy projects in Zimbabwe this year.
"We're concerned about these cuts, since CIDA is one of our main partners," said Rindai Vava, national director of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of civil society groups.
"There's uncertainty in terms of whether they'll be funding the election in 2013," she added. "It's a watershed election, and we don't want to see a repeat of the 2008 election. We're definitely going to feel the impact if they don't give advance support to us before shutting down."
In a statement issued Sunday, a CIDA spokeswoman said the agency will terminate all of its existing projects and contracts in Zimbabwe by March 2014 as part of its "restructuring and streamlining."
Between now and 2014, the Canadian aid agency will work with its civil society partners to "fulfill commitments and achieve planned results" – including its support for the 2013 elections, the statement said.
Zimbabwe's election in 2008 was widely discredited by a wave of horrific violence by pro-government thugs and security agents. Thousands of opposition supporters were assaulted or abducted, and many were tortured or raped.
Democracy is still on shaky ground in Zimbabwe today. It took a huge amount of behind-the-scenes lobbying by Zimbabwe's neighbours to persuade Mr. Mugabe to wait for democratic reforms before rushing into an election that he has been trying to orchestrate for the past two years.
Mr. Mugabe and his allies were keen to have the election as soon as possible. At the age of 88, his health is deteriorating, and he wants one final victory. He also wants to be sure of controlling the election, without the constitutional and human rights reforms that he had grudgingly accepted in a 2009 agreement with the opposition.
But the Southern Africa regional bloc of nations has insisted that Zimbabwe cannot hold elections until it finally introduces the new constitution and other electoral reforms. This week, South African media reported that Mr. Mugabe has reluctantly agreed to postpone the elections until next year, probably mid-2013.
The reforms are vital for Zimbabwe's democracy. Its voter rolls, for example, are notoriously unreliable, with thousands of "ghost voters" still registered. The list of registered voters includes, implausibly, more than 40,000 people older than 100 years, and more than 132,000 people older than 90. Both numbers are considered highly suspicious in a country with an average life expectancy of 45.
After faring badly in the last election, Mr. Mugabe's ruling party eventually agreed to form a coalition government with the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change(MDC). The two sides have been feuding ever since, with the coalition often on the verge of collapse.
After long delays, a draft of a new constitution is close to being finalized, and the MDC has hailed it as "the first step towards democracy." But after it is published and debated, it must be approved by a national referendum before the elections next year.
Another key issue is the power of Zimbabwe's military and security agencies, which are still loyal to Mr. Mugabe. They have resisted attempts at reform, and there are fears that they could declare emergency rule and appoint their own successor if Mr. Mugabe dies in office.