Mugabe, 86, has been beating the drum for fresh polls in recent months, amid familiar warning signs of a rise in political violence and a crackdown on the media.
But Tendai Biti, the finance minister in the unity government and secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), expressed fears today that, without fundamental reforms, Zimbabwe faces a repeat of the chaotic 2008 election in which the party says 253 people were killed.
"The chances of it being a bloodbath right now are probably more," he told the Guardian during a global poverty summit in Johannesburg. "It’s not a possibility, it’s a probability.
"Violence is rising now, hate speech is increasing, unconstitutional statements from generals are increasing right now. There’s a lot of work that has to be done by Zimbabweans, by [South African] President Zuma, by SADC [the Southern African Development Community], by the African Union, because all the signs, all the symptoms are not good. They are reflective of a reproduction of June 2008."
But Biti, who is in effect the number two of the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, insisted the MDC would not boycott an election if it is called this year.
"I think boycott politics doesn’t work," he said. "We will participate without a doubt but it will not be ideal. After all, the majority of Zimbabweans want real change. We can’t frustrate the majority of people.
"But there are certain situations where you can’t lead people to a bloodbath, so if there are conditions which are in any way close to June 2008, it would be immoral for us to lead people to a slaughterhouse.
"So yes to an election but no to a bloodbath. That’s the challenge of being in the spaces that some of us occupy. There is no textbook that you can look in for an answer. There is no university professor who will tell you an answer. So you just have to make the decision on the facts that are available as objectively as you can."
Biti, credited with steering Zimbabwe from hyperinflation to economic stability, called for a "road map" to a free and fair ballot. This would entail protecting individual voters against violence, possibly with the help of southern African neighbours, and guaranteeing the results against fraud.
He asked: "Is the people’s will going to be reflected and respected? Or is it going to be Zimbabwe part II, Kenya part II, Ivory Coast part II?
"Unless we’ve got an answer over these three fundamental issues then an election is a waste of time. While there’s an obligation for Zimbabweans to find an understanding with each other, this is not a domestic issue, it’s an African challenge. What has happened in Ivory Coast, what has happened in Kenya, what has happened in Zimbabwe is unacceptable."
The minister expressed dismay at the events in Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to give up power after defeat at the ballot box has earned comparisons with Mugabe.
He added: "Africa tends to be cyclical. Every time of an election people run away because elections tend to be cataclysmic. If the election that took place in the United Kingdom on 6 May last year had taken place in Africa, then Nick Clegg would have sought refugee status and Cameron would have been in some filthy prison somewhere. Look what has happened in Ivory Coast. So how do we find an answer?"
ZimOnline, a Zimbabwean news agency, reported today that more than 80,000 youth militia, war veterans and soldiers will be deployed across the country to ensure victory for Mugabe in elections that "look set to be the bloodiest ever witnessed in Zimbabwe".