Zimbabwe's stolen election – South Africa's big test

President Robert Gabriel Mugabe stole Zimbabwe's election last week, brazenly, ruthlessly, and systematically. That is the consensus of all local independent observers, all foreign observer teams, and many – but not all – of the regional African observer delegations. The United States has refused to recognize the result. So have the European Union and European leaders.

The question now is what, short of Zimbabweans rising up and ousting President Mugabe, can be done to right a wrong to democracy and Africa.

South Africa is the regional power and, with Nigeria, the linchpin of Africa. Its own economic growth has been severely compromised by Mr. Mugabe's machinations since 2000, and by last week's fraud.

Since it is profoundly in South Africa's interest to restore democratic practices to its neighbor and largest African trading partner, and since the South African chairman of the Southern African Parliamentary Union observer delegation condemned the vote, Washington, London, and Brussels have all looked to President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa for wisdom and assistance. They want him to join President Bush and others in declaring the Zimbabwe result invalid.

If President Mbeki can be persuaded to be forthright over Zimbabwe, and join a former Nigerian president in condemning the results, then undoing Mugabe's despotism may be possible without bloodshed.

Mr. Mbeki may wait to see if Zimbabweans rise up, the Zimbabwe Army shoots protesters, and mayhem demands South African intervention. That kind of caution would cause precisely the degree of chaos that Mbeki is desperate to avert. So, if canny, Mbeki could choose instead to criticize the tainted outcome, and demand a fresh election monitored and policed by South Africans or the Southern African Development Community. Or he could intervene directly, to prevent bloodshed.

The choices are stark. If Africa is going to stand for democratic practice, Mbeki is going to have to say so (as former President Nelson Mandela has done), and act accordingly. Otherwise, the opportunity for African renewal – what Mbeki calls an African renaissance – will again fade.

Exactly how Mugabe perpetrated his heist is widely known. In the runup to the election, he set paramilitary thugs on his opponents, intimidating many potential voters. His police busted up campaign rallies and routinely harassed Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), his key opponent. Two years ago Mugabe's men tried to throw Mr. Tsvangirai out of an eight-story building.

Nearly 100 MDC functionaries were killed in the last three months by agents of Mugabe, and hundreds more were beaten. For months the state-controlled press, radio, and television spewed out propaganda against the MDC and Tsvangirai. The independent press was bombed, its distributors attacked, and its editors and writers frequently brought in for police "questioning." An independent radio station was destroyed.

Despots do desperate things to perpetuate their rule. During the election itself, Mugabe's official supervisory commission suddenly cut in half the number of available polling places in urban constituencies (where Tsvangirai was strongest), and added polling places in the rural areas, where voters were far fewer. The predictable result was enormous lines at urban voting booths and long-suffering voters, many of whom never reached the polls despite an extra day mandated by a High Court judge. Mugabe cut the judge's extra day down to a half day, leaving hundreds of thousands voteless in Harare, the largest city.

Also, many voters found their names struck off the rolls, or moved to the rolls in distant communities. As the electoral tragedy came to a crashing end last week, Mugabe's police had to close the voting places by attacking the voters and threatening to shoot. The police also arrested at least 150 local observers for supposed violations, and 200 MDC supporters for supposed voting irregularities.

Amnesty International says that 1,400 or more MDC polling agents and other observers were locked up by the police during and after the balloting ended. Many languished in jail, without charges, all last week.

Vote totals are also suspicious. There are many more votes for Mugabe in areas known to be MDC strongholds, and much higher total counts in many constituencies than in the parliamentary elections of 2000. Seasoned watchers suspect ballot-box stuffing and vote fiddling, but exact figures are not yet known.

Zimbabwe is in despair, with only Mugabe, his cronies, and his vigilante supporters cheering. The ordinary Zimbabwean confronts shelves without the staple maize flour, cooking oil, sugar, and other essentials. Hunger has arrived and starvation is possible. Reports from all corners of Zimbabwe talk of deepening shortages, and little hope.

Zimbabwe waits for Mbeki's help or an upheaval created by disturbed and cheated urban workers. Mugabe's gold may soon turn to dross.

• Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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