Mugabe can pitch this as a foreign conspiracy
There are two faces that Zimbabweans are used to seeing at election time. One is the seemingly ageless visage of their current President, Robert Mugabe, and the other is that of Tony Blair.
The last polls to be held in the southern African country two years ago were billed as the "anti-Blair" election. After seeing off rumours of a palace coup from members of his own ruling party earlier this year, Mugabe launched into a four-hour speech in which he made no mention of millions of starving Zimbabweans, nor of astronomical inflation. There were, however, countless references to the former British prime minister and his sinister plot to recolonise Zimbabwe.
And so it has been for the past five years. Mr Blair told the Earth Summit in Johannesburg that the state of Africa was a "scar on the conscience of the world". Mugabe replied: "Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe."
Ever since Mr Blair's public attack on the disastrous handling of the seizure of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has used the notion of a foreign conspiracy to enduring effect. Meanwhile, a country that was once Africa's bread basket has lurched into famine and the British Government has abandoned its megaphone diplomacy in favour of back channels and what the South African government calls "quiet diplomacy".
In the 27 years since emerging as the first leader of independent Zimbabwe, the former Catholic school teacher has proven himself incredibly adept at twisting the words of his allies and opponents and staying a step ahead of both. While the 83-year-old President is often portrayed as a cartoon of an African dictator in the British press, he has managed to identify himself so completely with the independence struggle that white critics are seen as a neocolonialist and possibly racist.
The very slim hope of political progress in Zimbabwe now rests with talks under way in South Africa. Sources close to the negotiations involving the ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition groups have for the first time expressed "guarded optimism" that they might get an agreement. The International Crisis Group, an independent think-tank, said this week that British attacks on the Mugabe regime had been "counterproductive" and sanctions "ineffective". In private, many opposition figures inside Zimbabwe are wary of British leaders posturing and point out that there has been a significant gap between rhetoric and action. No one close to the talks in Pretoria seems keen for Britain to pick up the megaphone again.