Mbeki's Big Test

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With parliamentary elections Thursday in Zimbabwe - labeled an "outpost of tyranny" by the US - African leaders have another opportunity to address one of their own regional problems.

Doing more for itself has been the continent's express desire in recent years. The world witnessed a shining example of that recently when Western African nations successfully pressured tiny Togo to adhere to its constitution and schedule elections after the passing of its longtime dictator.

But where is Africa now? More specifically, where is South African leader Thabo Mbeki, Africa's "point man" (George Bush's designation) on Zimbabwe?

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Along with Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, President Mbeki is Africa's most public face on human rights, peace, and economic development. He's sought to broker peace agreements in Burundi, Congo, and the Ivory Coast. He pushed to create new pan-African, problem-solving organizations like the African Union. And as the leader of Zimbabwe's neighbor and economic partner, he's the most influential and dominant player in the region.

But Mbeki has given Zimbabwe's questionable elections advance approval, saying: "I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will militate in a way so that the elections will not be free and fair."

Is that so? Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe may have opted for less violence in this election, and even given the opposition limited access to state TV. But this sheen of legitimacy can't hide significant electoral flaws: harassed political opponents; closed newspapers; outdated voter rolls that include an estimated 800,000 invalid names; select absentee balloting; and food shortages as a political weapon (this, when nearly 5 million Zimbabweans verge on acute hunger).

Undoubtedly, Mbeki is sensitive to Mr. Mugabe's respect among many black South Africans as a victor over white colonialism - despite driving his economy to ruin. Perhaps Mbeki hopes that circumstances, such as Mugabe's age and recent internal divisions in Mugabe's own party, will solve this problem for him.

Actually, it's not up to Mbeki to "solve" the problem of democracy in Zimbabwe. But he must not give these elections a pass. He and other African leaders have sent election monitors there. Impartial observers can add considerable pressure in righting election wrongs, as Ukraine showed last year.

If Mbeki legitimizes these elections, he risks his role as a force for progress in Africa. Worse, he'll be letting down the people of Zimbabwe, who've already suffered enough.

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