Harare - Zimbabwe began registering new voters on Monday in a push to meet a Constitutional Court order to hold elections by 31 July, even though one of the two main parties wants a delay to allow for reform of the media and security forces.
President Robert Mugabe has said he will comply with the court order to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections, angering the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of his chief rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
To help ensure a fair vote, the MDC wants first to open up broadcast media to all parties and to agree a code to stop army and police meddling in politics.
But the court ruling leaves little time for such reforms and
the state media, still firmly in the camp of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, have stepped up attacks on Tsvangirai and the MDC in the last month. Senior police and army officers have openly campaigned for Mugabe, labelling Tsvangirai a Western puppet.
In the impoverished Harare township of Mbare, a queue of 150 people formed outside a Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) centre where officials were issuing identity cards and registering new voters.
The Mbare constituency is held by the MDC and has been a violent flashpoint although there was no incident at the Mai Musodzi Hall, where people, including many women with children strapped to their backs, queued to register.
In the absence of electronic registration kit, election officials checked identity documents and proof of residence before entering names of new voters on loose sheets of paper.
Reuters journalists were allowed to film and take pictures but could not interview new voters or electoral officials because they did not have ZEC clearance letters.
"As we indicated, all is in order and we [started] deployment of voter registration and inspection officers at centres countrywide today," ZEC spokesperson Lovemore Sekeramayi told state radio.
The MDC says Zanu-PF has used the voter register to rig previous elections by preventing Mugabe's opponents from getting on the list and refusing to remove dead people.
ZEC chair Rita Makarau says she needs at least 44 days to organise a poll, which means the 89-year-old Mugabe must declare the election date by 17 June at the latest.
Mugabe says he is ready for elections but Zanu-PF has yet to select candidates, a process that has sometimes been divisive.
Mugabe is expected to chair his party's politburo this week to "finalise" rules for his party's internal election. The MDC started choosing its candidates two weeks ago.
Funding for the presidential and parliamentary polls remains unclear after the postponement of a weekend summit of the regional 15-member Southern African Development Community to help raise the $132m needed.
Authorities gave no reason for the postponement.
In a story headlined "Hang in there, the President is busy", the official Sunday Mail newspaper said Mugabe had not snubbed the meeting but would attend only after all legal requirements for an election by 31 July were in place.