Harare - President Robert Mugabe's party says there is "no reason" for Zimbabwe not to hold elections in 2011, but analysts believe the polls could be much later over demands for more reforms to guarantee a free and fair vote.
Mugabe, 86, was forced into a power-sharing pact with his rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai more than a year ago after a crisis over a 2008 national election that local and foreign observers say was marred by violence and vote-rigging.
In public, both Mugabe's Zanu-PF and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been telling their party structures to stay ready for elections, but privately their officials say the polls are at least two years away.
In a statement posted on its website this week, headlined "Elections inevitable", Zanu-PF says there are serious political differences in the fragile coalition - which Mugabe has likened to water and oil - and Zimbabwe should go for elections when the government's two-year mandate ends next year.
"Given this situation, there is no reason why the people of Zimbabwe should not go for elections when the inclusive government expires next year," it says, dismissing observations by some critics that Zimbabwe was not ready for new elections.
"Zanu-PF has clearly stated that it is ready for elections. The only question now is, are both factions of the MDC ready?" it added.
Under the power-sharing arrangement, fresh elections would have been held in 2011 after a referendum on a new constitution, but the process to write a new charter is nearly a year behind.Confusing
Analysts see the latest Zanu-PF statement as part of a broad strategy of mobilising its own ranks and confusing opponents.
To add further confusion, Mugabe's information minister and Zanu-PF political commissar Webster Shamu has turned up the party music at the state broadcaster ZBC with a new set of videos extolling Mugabe and Zanu-PF's leadership role.
"There is nothing inevitable about next year," said Lovemore Madhuku, head of pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.
"What I see is a strategy of managing both the internal dynamics within Zanu-PF, and the outside ones, with the MDC, by creating a sense of uncertainty," he told Reuters.
"I don't think Zanu-PF is sure about the electoral outcome and I don't see how they can be in any hurry," Madhuku said.
Political analysts say Mugabe's strategy is to hold on to power for as long as possible while re-organising his party that was fractured by the near loss of power in 2008.
Tsvangirai's MDC is insisting on minimum democratic conditions before fresh elections are held.
Commands police hostile to MDC
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, has already conceded on the establishment of an independent electoral commission, a human rights watchdog and the partial opening up of the media.
But critics say Mugabe still retains sweeping presidential powers and security laws he has used to stifle opponents and still commands military and police forces hostile to the MDC.
They say Zanu-PF may still manipulate the process to write the new constitution, which many Zimbabweans hope will reduce presidential powers and strengthen parliament's oversight role.
In what many see as a deliberate strategy to undermine the MDC in the countryside, Mugabe's militants have mobilised rural voters to confront the MDC over accusations the party is advocating gay rights in the new constitution.
Gays and lesbians are largely frowned upon in Zimbabwe.
"They are trying to subvert the whole process by suggesting that the MDC is pursuing issues that are not a priority, and to me that is not the stance of a party confident about elections," said John Makumbe, a veteran Mugabe critic and political commentator.