Expectations are high in Southern Africa that the outcome of Zimbabwe's forthcoming presidential election will be credible and internationally acceptable following the move by the country's election body to transmit results electronically to avoid vote tampering.

The country is due to hold its presidential and general elections in March next year to end the power-sharing government that has ruled the country for the past five years following disputed election results.

The Zimbabwe Elections Commission (ZEC) has said that for the first time it will be able to transmit results electronically from local polling stations to a command center in the capital, Harare, in an effort to stop people from tampering with the results.

A US$20 million fiber-optic network linking the command center with district polling stations is being laid and the software that will be used to transmit the results is currently being put in place, according to the ZEC. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is funding the project.

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), consisting of 14 countries including Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been pushing for free and fair elections in the Southern African country.

Zimbabwe will be following Zambia and South Africa, among other countries in the region, whose election results are transmitted electronically to a command center to avoid rigging. Both the Zambian and Namibian governments have said that they expect Zimbabwe will have credible election results this time.

Acting ZEC chairperson Joyce Kazembe told reporters last week that electronic transmission of results will help eliminate human error. "If we achieve this, the margin of error will be reduced," Kazembe said.

Questions have been raised in the past about the outcome of the previous elections, with civil society organizations and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, saying the results may have been rigged. Tsvangirai has said that he believes President Robert Mugabe has lost respect in the region and is losing support among regional governments.

The U.S. and U.K governments have both imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe over the alleged rigging of the 2008 election results, which gave Mugabe another five-year term. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 30 years, much to the dislike of Western countries, which have criticized his economic policies and land reform and property seizure program

Marvelous Tshuma, a civic society leader and advocate for free and fair elections, said in an interview that "the rise of the Internet and other computerized connectivity options to transmit the results to the command center could minimize loopholes that give rise to vote rigging."

But Phillip Pasirayi, a political activist with the Center for Community Development in Zimbabwe, told SW Radio Africa that while digitalization is a positive trend, the only way to deepen the country's democracy was to exercise tolerance and not to criminalize people with divergent views.

"We are not as a country, at the stage where digitalization is a priority. Issues around electoral malpractices and the general culture of violence and intolerance in Zimbabwe should be tackled first," Pasirayi told the radio station last week.

In Zambia, the use of computerized system to transmit the election results resulted in the opposition winning the election for the first time in 20 years.