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Zimbabwe's election: a battle for democracy and a test for Africa

If Tsvangirai wins despite Mugabe's heavy-handed tactics, it'll be a historic victory.

By Andrew Meldrum / June 19, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

Bullets or ballots? That's the stark question now facing Zimbabwe ahead of its runoff presidential election on June 27. The vote is more than a contest between President Robert Mugabe and opposition challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. It is a battle for the country's faltering democracy.

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"We are prepared to fight for our country and to go to war for it," Mr. Mugabe warned this week. "We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?"

Amid such threatening talk – and reports of intensified violence – the only hope that the people's choice will prevail is if election observers step up to create a safe climate for voting.

As a reporter who covered Zimbabwe for more than 20 years, I witnessed the country's hopeful rise and tragic deterioration. In 1980, it emerged from a bloody race war that ended the white minority rule of then-Rhodesia to become a stable democracy and one of Africa's most stable and prosperous economies.

But in the past 10 years, its economy has shrunk in half and hyperinflation tops 1 million percent. Life expectancy, meanwhile, has dropped to 36 years, one of the world's lowest. Once known as Africa's breadbasket, Zimbabwe has depended on food aid for the past seven years. Now it's reeling from state terror as Mr. Mugabe, in office for 28 years, clings to power.

The people of Zimbabwe badly want to restore their democracy but, as things stand, the crucial poll on June 27 cannot possibly be free and fair.

Mugabe has unleashed sweeping state violence that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party says has killed more than 65 of its supporters, with hundreds more tortured and thousands displaced. Mr. Tsvangirai, the MDC candidate, has been repeatedly detained and harassed, while top officials of his party have been jailed and numerous rallies banned. Tsvangirai has not been able to campaign on local radio, television or in daily newspapers, all of which are controlled by the state.

The roll of registered voters is a mess, with partial audits showing 20 percent of the voters are either deceased or listed more than once. This allows ample opportunity for vote-rigging, as the elections are administered by military officers who firmly support Mugabe. Tsvangirai could boycott the runoff on grounds that conditions are grossly skewed against him. But that would only allow Mugabe to claim an unopposed victory. Tsvangirai has said that speaking to supporters – many with broken limbs and fractured skulls – convinced him to stand strong.