Observers say elections in Southern Africa this year are vulnerable to manipulation and misuse of the military to clamp down on opponents.
Elections in Africa are often high-risk affairs and in 2014 the majority are taking place in Southern Africa.
Elections will be held in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia. In at least two, Mozambique and Namibia, there will be a change of leadership because the terms of the current presidents expire.
But according to Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group's Southern Africa project director, conflict resulting from elections is largely contained by the dominance of the former liberation parties and the struggle for power is often contained within the ruling parties. These include Frelimo in Mozambique, Swapo in Namibia and the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in Botswana.
But, Pigou said, the problem is that they often have difficulty in accepting legitimate opposition and the leaders of the ruling parties benefit greatly from being incumbent.
"The theme related to elections this year is how parties engage with a more pluralistic political environment and whether they will react to that by frustrating the emergence of pluralism through their control of state resources and institutions," he said.
Misuse of security
Pigou said it is crucial that the state should not misuse its security apparatus to clamp down on opponents.
"We should keep an eye on this in all these countries. In Zimbabwe, the military is used in a very cynical way," he said.
At this stage, the only country in which the politics is being marred by violence is Mozambique, where Frelimo's former civil war adversary, Renamo, has embarked on a low-level rebellion.
Renamo's support has dwindled in the past few years – it won only 16% of the vote in 2009 – and its leader, Afonso Dhlakama, has decided to retreat "to the bush", a move many say is a kneejerk reaction to his loss of influence in national politics.
Renamo is accused of using the elections, slated for October 15, as a platform to mobilise support and of trying to sabotage the process. But observers almost unanimously rule out the possibility of a return to full-scale civil war in Mozambique.
Meanwhile, the fledgling Mozambique Democratic Movement has been drawing more and more support and has won three of the country's four major cities in local elections in November last year.
Renamo boycotted the poll.
Pigou warns that the "resource options" opening up in Mozambique could also raise the stakes in the quest for political power.
The discoveries of natural gas in Mozambique are attracting bidders from as far afield as India and Thailand, leading to rumours that the ruling politicians are making large amounts of money in the process.
The country plans to produce 20-million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2018, making it the third-largest provider of LNG in the world after Australia and Qatar.
Oil and gas analyst Duncan Clarke, who heads the consultancy Global Pacific and Partners, said it is difficult to say if Mozambique will become a victim of the infamous "resource curse" that has driven many other underdeveloped African countries into conflict after big natural resource finds have been made.
"All we can say is that, once production starts, it will have a huge impact on gross domestic product growth," he said.
The relative political stability of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) seems to have been secured by the tendency of leaders not to overstay their welcome – that is, excluding Zimbabwe.
Like his Namibian counterpart Hifikepunye Pohamba, Mozambican leader Armando Guebuza's two terms in power come to an end this year and he has said he won't try to stand for a third term.
Although his policies did not make any waves outside the country, local critics accuse him of benefiting from the new natural resource wealth. This is similar to what happened to former Ghanaian president John Kufuor, who is highly regarded internationally but was accused of dishing out lucrative oil contracts to his cronies during his second term that ended in 2009.
Many say that is why Kufuor wasn't on the list of beneficiaries of the $5-million Mo Ibrahim Leadership Prize – a lump sum that since its inception in 2007 has only gone to three former presidents: Joachim Chissano (Mozambique), Festus Mogae (Botswana) and Pedro Pires (Cape Verde).
Will the same fate of being loved abroad but shunned at home befall Malawi's President Joyce Banda?
After her memorable performance at Nelson Mandela's funeral late last year, Banda faced renewed criticism at home, where campaigning for the May 20 elections is in full swing.
Banda, who came to power in April 2012 following the sudden death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, is facing tough opposition from the late Mutharika's brother, Peter.
Her image has been tarnished by a recent financial scandal dubbed Cashgate by the local media. Officials from Banda's People's Party have been accused of stealing up to $100-million from state coffers.
Although an investigation has been launched and many people have been arrested, the fallout is affecting her chances of winning her first election.
Denis Kadima, the executive director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said that of all the countries in SADC that are having elections this year, the outcome is least predictable in Malawi.
One of the problems with the country's political system is the high degree of floor-crossing that happens after each election.
"MPs cross the floor, which doesn't reflect the majority at grassroots level," he said.
Kadima said the electoral system in Malawi is not as well entrenched as elsewhere in the region and that the incumbent often has a huge advantage. "The playing field is never level."
Electoral laws relating to the funding of political parties differ from country to country. In Botswana, where the BDP is expected to win the proportional vote in October, ensuring a second term for President Ian Khama, the state does not fund political parties.
"This always leads to complaints that the ruling party is getting funds from big companies," Kadima said.
As with elections in Zimbabwe last year and the recent presidential poll in Madagascar, which was concluded on December 20, SADC and the African Union (AU) will once again be monitoring the fairness of voting in 2014.
Kadima said, although it may seem from the outside that countries flout electoral laws regardless of what others in the region may say, governments are generally "concerned to be seen in a good light by their peers".
"There is a lot of pressure and lobbying, but they [SADC and the AU] don't want to embarrass those in power by making it public," he said.
Kadima said that, despite major progress being made to ensure observer teams are representative and also include members of civil society, the methodology of observing has to be reviewed. Electoral fraud can happen weeks before voting takes place by ruling parties manipulating the voters' roll and misusing state institutions, and because all parties don't have equal access to the media.
"I would advise SADC that, instead of having 200 observers in Madagascar, have 50, but have people come well in advance."