IN mature democracies, losers' peaceful acquiescence in voting results has become so routinized we tend to forget that what appears to be a matter of habit is in fact a decision. Repudiation of the results, even violent resistance, is a possible response, as Southern rejection of the US election of 1860 shows.
In young democracies, where acceptance of the majority's will is less habitual, that moment of decision can be the knife's edge on which the fate of representative government teeters.
Angola's fledgling democracy is balanced on that knife's edge. Its survival rests in the hands of Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In Angola's first free elections, held Sept. 29-30, Mr. Savimbi was defeated in his challenge to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who seized power in 1975 after Portugal granted independence.
Bitter as his defeat must be, Savimbi should accept the outcome in the interest of his weary nation and the democratic principles he professes to champion.
For 16 years after Angola's independence, UNITA under Savimbi waged a bloody guerrilla war against Mr. dos Santos's Marxist government. The conflict became a proxy battlefield in the cold war, with the Soviet Union and Cuba aiding the government and the United States backing UNITA. The demise of the Soviet Union and military stalemate in Angola, however, cleared the way for the United Nations-supervised elections last week.
By most reports from some 800 international monitors, the elections were sufficiently free and fair to warrant certification of the results, despite Savimbi's charges of vote fraud.
By accepting the results, Savimbi could display statesmanship and help set democracy on a sound course. If he takes up arms again, he can expect neither sympathy nor aid from the international community.